Sunday, March 25, 2012


In this space, my goal has always been to depict the day to day pleasures, challenges and rewards of life with Cleo.  Though I may, from time to time, drop allusions about politics or my political leanings, I avoid taking this divisive topic head on.  I hope it’s clear, then, that the subject of today’s blog, Seamus the Irish Setter, is in no way intended to be political commentary.  Rather, I hope we can look at the now famous event from the human standpoint without falling into camps of defending or attacking a Republican presidential candidate or even trying to evaluate whether the event has bearing on his suitability for either the race or the office.  Honestly, as a dog lover, I just didn’t feel I could continue to neglect this subject.  If you think you might be offended by a frank discussion of what some have called Seamusgate, please stop reading now.  I promise, I won’t be hurt and will be happy to welcome you back next week.  I’ll give you a moment to click the close button.

Okay, it’s just us now.  Thanks for coming along for the ride.  So to speak.

In case you haven’t heard much about this story, let me give a quick recap.  In 1983, Mitt Romney, his wife Ann, and their five sons set out from Boston for a family vacation in Ontario, a twelve hour road trip.  They loaded the back of the station wagon with their luggage, then hoisted Seamus and his dog crate onto the car’s roof, strapping it firmly in place.  This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision.  In fact, Romney had created what he calls a “windshield” for the front of the crate.  Some time during the twelve hours, one of the Romney lads noticed that a brown liquid was running down the rear window.  The family pulled over at a rest stop, realized that Seamus had developed explosive diarrhea, pulled him out of the crate, hosed the car down, hosed the dog down, then put him back in his crate and finished the drive.

So what might that experience have been like for Seamus?  Romney has described the crate as “airtight.”  He probably didn’t mean that precisely.  For one thing, there is no such thing as an airtight pet crate today and there wasn’t one in 1983.  After all, a truly airtight pet crate wouldn’t be particularly popular as it would suffocate the animal inside.  So, yes, there was a handmade “windshield” protecting Seamus from the impact of wind coming directly from the front.  But anyone who has ridden in the back seat of a car with the windows down—even a bit—knows how much wind comes in from the sides, despite the car’s windshield.  In fact, a Nobel prize-winning physicist has said that the crate itself would have created turbulence, changing the airflow over the top of the car.  Wind diverted around the sides of the “windshield” would enter into the crate through the side vents and “would buffet the side of the dog.”  For twelve hours.  Even with the crate for protection, the speed of the car would exert ten pounds of air pressure on Seamus’ head, essentially making him feel like he had a three pound weight pressing on him during all of the highway portions of the ride.  On top of all this, he was hosed down with cold water at the rest stop and sent back into the wind. 

And what about that brown liquid?  Had Seamus just eaten something that upset his stomach?  Or was he literally scared s_________?  In the many, many times I’ve seen this event discussed and described, it’s been really rare that anyone has mentioned noise.  What would it have sounded like, passing an eighteen wheeler?  I find them loud and scary even with my car window up, and I understand what those rumbling behemoths really are.

Some folks have suggested that Seamus’ experience would have been no different from riding in the back of a pickup truck.  I can’t agree with that.  In this instance, size matters.  In the bed of a pickup, a dog can move around.  The pickup’s cab is significantly more substantial and cuts far more wind than the handmade “windshield.”  The high sides of the truck bed would provide shelter for a dog that wanted to curl up and take a nap.  It would probably be just as loud passing a semi-truck, but somehow, the dog in the steel pickup seems far less exposed than the one in the plastic crate atop a station wagon, hurtling down the highway.

In no discussion of Seamusgate has a Romney ever said, “Oh, you know, we trained Seamus to ride in the crate on top of the car.  Gosh, we spent months getting him used to being up there, taking short trips around the neighborhood, then gradually working up to the highways and byways.”  Preparation went as far as making the “windshield,” but never entailed acclimating the dog to the plan. 

Cleo rides in a crate when we drive, too.  Inside the car, of course.  She has a soft blanket to curl up on.  The idea, obviously, is that if we ever have an accident, she will be in a contained and protected space; she won’t be thrown about.  There have been a couple times I’ve had to stop short, slam on the brakes.  Had she not been in the crate, she would have gone flying.  As it was, her nose bonked the front, which probably didn’t feel terrific, but wasn’t life threatening.

She has been riding in a car as long as I’ve known her, and still, from time to time she whimpers or grumbles as we accelerate on the freeway or navigate a twisty road.  She’s on a cozy blanket, inside her familiar crate, inside a closed car.  Every time she whines, I think of Seamus, unheard on the roof, his family out of reach below him, and my heart aches.  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Angels with Wet Noses

Whenever someone rhapsodizes about their Lab, their Australian Shepherd, their Shih Tzu, I always smile and make encouraging remarks.  It’s so important that people love their puppy dogs.  But I know the truth:  Bedlington Terriers are the best dogs there are, and Cleo is the cream of the crop. 

Of course, I recognize that people have different needs in dogs and that what charms me about Bedlingtons might irritate someone else.  Granted, the irritated person couldn’t possibly be in their right mind, but nevertheless.  Even our trainer, who was recently celebrated as the AKC’s pick for both trainer of the year and breeder of the year, leaned down to Cleo during class the other evening and whispered, “I would take you home in a heartbeat!”  Anyway, it’s pointless even to try to explain the perfections of one’s pet because whoever hears you will just smile and make encouraging remarks, but will never understand that your dog really is the height of perfection.

For the last few nights, Cleo has had to be on her own while John played at one venue or another and I performed a staged reading of a play at a local theater.  Cleo is pretty relaxed about being left alone.  Though she always gazes at us in disbelief as we walk out the door without her, it’s clear that when she hears the car drive away, she makes a nest out of the blanket on the chaise in the living room, then curls up and naps until we get home.  As we walk back through the door, she lifts her sleep-rumpled face and checks that it’s us, then rolls over onto her back and exposes her tummy for a good rub.  That done, she scrambles to her feet and wraps her arms around my neck, giving my face a good once-over with a wet tongue.

Last night, Saint Patrick’s Day (Saint Patrick’s Night?), John’s gig went much longer than mine.  His band played till midnight, then the packing up and the drive home put it close to 1 AM by the time he called me to report in on the success of the evening.  During the three hours that Cleo and I had been home alone together—other than a couple trips outside, once to relieve herself and once to patrol for intruding wildlife—she had followed me from one room to another, plunking herself down somewhere comfortable while I did whatever it was I was engaged in.  When John called, we were in the middle of an active game of indoor fetch.  The rules for this game are that Cleo and I sit on the chaise and when I throw a toy, she launches herself after it (remaining airborne for several feet), grabs it, then scrambles back to the chaise to tag me with it and a cold, wet nose. 

She had just flung herself after a particularly good toss when my cell phone rang.  I have a distinct ring tone just for John.  Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that Cleo has learned to recognize that ring tone—the introduction to “Here Comes the Sun.”  But as soon as it started, she whirled around and looked at me.  As I picked up my phone, she hopped back onto the chaise beside me, curled up and stared at the door.  Behaviorists say that dogs don’t have much sense of time, but Cleo knows that sometime after that song plays, Daddy comes through the door.  Though the venue where John was playing was just down the hill on Cannery Row, it took him several minutes to get home.  While she waited, Cleo put her head down and closed her eyes.  When I knew he was close, I said to her, “Daddy’s almost home.”  Up she sat, staring at the door once more.  As we heard him pull into the driveway, Cleo pranced over to the door, tail wagging gently, ready to let her daddy know that he’d been missed.

It seems odd to say, but Cleo’s level of intellectual engagement with us is a source of constant wonder.  She surprises us daily.  And I have to smile when I think of the changes in my sweetheart.  From the man who never wanted to have another dog to the playmate who races around the house at top speed, leaping over furniture in a wild game of keepaway.  From the loving husband who resignedly told me, “Honey, I understand if you want to get a puppy” to the adoring puppy-daddy whom Cleo presses herself against for an extra snuggle every morning. 

Sure, I think Cleo is the Angel of Perfection, but I know that the folks talking to me about their Lab, their Aussie, their Shih Tzu think that their little darling is, too.  And that makes life pretty sweet.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Dog Owner's Dilemma

There are certain challenges inherent to sharing one’s life with a dog when one has chosen not to eat animals.

The other day,  I was shopping for a chew toy for Cleo, something that would keep her entertained during meetings when she needed to lie down and not interact with people.  Plastics are out: They either completely fail to interest her or they’re so soft she burns through them in a half hour and risks choking to death on the oversized chunks she gnaws off of them.  Rawhide is out: I’ve heard too many horror stories about pieces getting lodged in dogs’ intestines, slimy strips slipping down dogs’ throats and strangling them, or contaminated samples that cause sickness and death.  Bully sticks are out: I might be able to deal with the fact that they’re made from bull penises, but I can’t deal with the rank smell that wafts from Cleo’s mouth after she’s been slobbering on them.  Bones, of course, are out: I don’t know of any vet who thinks they’re a good idea, though few pet supply stores fail to carry them.  She loves Booda Bones, but they’re short-term entertainment, not enough for those three hour meetings.  She also loves her rope chew toys (the doggie version of dental floss), but only when one end is being held by a human; in her mind, they’re not for solo play. 

Now clearly, given the obvious fact that I must have provided bully sticks (though not rawhide or bones) to Cleo in the past in order to know what her breath smells like after she’s been chewing them, the problem is not that I’m completely averse to providing animal products to my dog.  I am under no misapprehension about dogs; they are meat eaters and must be meat eaters to get the full nutrition they require.  Human beings, the remarkable survivors that we are, may be omnivores who, barring certain medical conditions, can get all the protein and other nutrients we need without ingesting a single animal.  Dogs just aren’t built that way.  Cleo’s food—both canned and kibble—is made of meat: turkey, duck, chicken, venison, salmon, beef and even lamb.  I would be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me.  I feel guilty, even pained, every time I restock the puppy larder.  But as deeply as I feel about not eating animals, my love for Cleo runs far deeper.  And so, the best I can do is mitigate our impact on the animal population. 

My personal choice to stop eating animals sprang from three main concerns.  The planet cannot sustain the number of food animals necessary to feed a world of meat eaters, from the vast amount of water necessary to produce one pound of meat to the noxious fecal pools that neighbor every factory farm, spewing methane into the air and drastically increasing global warming.  My second concern has to do with the way factory farmed animals suffer their miserable existences.  While I can seek out farms and ranches that prove that their animals didn’t suffer during their lives, that only takes me to my third concern.  Other than a handful of privately run, family owned facilities, slaughterhouses are nightmares of atrocities, for the animals brought there to die and for the humans who work there.  So the answer for me personally was to stop eating animals.

And yet, Cleo needs animal protein in order to survive and thrive.  Anybody know of dog food that guarantees that it is made from animals that lived and died humanely?  I read labels.  I haven’t found any yet.  I suppose the answer is to make my own dog food from guaranteed happy meat.  Is kibble baked?

So anyway, there I am prowling the treat aisles at our local Pet Food Express, picking up and putting back one long-lasting chew treat after another.  This one Cleo wouldn’t like, that one is too dangerous, a third makes me feel too guilty.  Finally, I am holding two packages.  One is some kind of remarkable sirloin jerky that I think Cleo would love.  The other is dried bison Achilles tendons.  I stand debating for several minutes.  Finally, I choose the bison bits.  I know how cattle are slaughtered and I can’t bring myself to buy the sirloin.  I hope that the bison lived happy lives roaming what’s left of some Wyoming plain, then, because they are different and exotic, had to be slaughtered by someone who really knew what he was doing and made it quick and painless.  I admit, it’s a pretty slim hope.

When I got home, I plucked a tendon from the bag and presented it to Cleo thinking that it would be a good opportunity to test how long the chew fest might last.  She sniffed it, looked at me, sniffed it again, then very gingerly took it in her mouth and backed up.  She stared at me for another moment.  Then she trotted into one of the back bedrooms.  “Aha,” I thought, “she’s off to start a good gnaw.”  Within minutes, she was back, empty handed—well, empty jawed.  She strolled into the living room, curled up and went to sleep. 

For the next several days, each evening after we got home from work, she would move her treasure from one hiding place to another.  When she is being sneaky, when she’s stolen a pair of socks from the laundry hamper, for example, she tiptoes past us, making a distinctive tick, tick, tick, tick with her claws on the hardwood floors.  As she moves her bison bit, she uses the same gait, casting sidelong glances at us as she sneaks by.  A few times, it has turned up tucked into the space between the refrigerator and the sliding glass door that leads to the side yard.  Once I discovered her standing on our bed, trying to hide the thing underneath my pillow.  For a couple days it disappeared altogether, only to resurface (literally) clenched in the mud-covered maw of a triumphant Cleo.  The worst time was the rainy day last weekend when I came home from a conference in Seattle ready to curl up on the chaise with a book and the little girl I had keenly missed.  Without stopping to wonder why the blanket was so oddly smushed against the back of the chaise, I yanked it up and sent the gnarly animal part, spinning end over end, into my lap.  I’m not too proud to admit that I squealed like a twelve-year-old girl, although I did manage to remove it from my lap with nothing stronger than an “oh, yuck!”  All this time, though, she had not left a single tooth mark on it.  Clearly it is a prized possession, but I had given up any hope that it would ever be put to the purpose for which I bought it.

At some point this afternoon, I realized that Cleo had been outside for an uncharacteristically long time.  I peeked out the glass door.  There she was, sprawled on the Dichondra in the dappled sun.  Her front paws clutched one end of the tendon as she gnawed happily away at the other.  As I watched, her rear end went up into the air, her elbows still on the ground as she maneuvered for better leverage, bringing her back teeth to the job of pulverizing that bison tendon.  Cleo, the happy meat eater.  I don’t know how long it kept her busy.  When I checked on her a bit later, she’d either polished it off or buried it again.  I’m not sure that it fills the bill as entertainment during a meeting, but I do know she has enjoyed the thrill of possessing such a frontier treasure.

I guess all I can do is say, “Thank you, Bison, for your sacrifice.  You have brought great joy to this wolf in lamb’s clothing.”

Cleo and her frontier treasure