Bernie’s Bedtime Story


Bernie the lovable pit mix enjoying a little snuggle time with Jim.

“Tell me a story, Jim…you know, the one about how you rescued me,” pleaded Bernie.

– Moment of silence –

And without taking his eyes off the television, Jim answered, “I opened the car door and you jumped in.”

“Yeah,” sighed Bernie. “I love that story. Tell it again!”

It is entirely possible that this entire conversation was fabricated by the ever-present voices inside my head. These things happen.

However, Bernie’s rather unremarkable, Jim-was-at-the-right-place-at-the-right-time rescue is a very real tale with a good ending. This is not the case for many dogs who are dropped off to find the often fictitious “home in the country.” Fortunately for Bernie, Jim found him before the coyotes did.

Of course we can’t keep them all, so Bernie is here waiting for his perfect permanent home to “rescue” him once again. That’s when we get to add, “…and they all lived happily ever after…” before “the end.”

Bernie and JimAuthor’s follow-up…will it be a shock to tell you that Bernie DID find his happily-ever-after home right here at Tails You Win Farm? Yeah. Some things are just meant to be. Love you forever, Bernie dog. We can’t keep them all, but we can damn sure keep you!


How Do You Spell JT?

Justin-Timberlake-Upcoming-concertsThere was a huge concert in Tulsa last night.  Thousands of people swarmed downtown to see the show. And who was the star attraction? JT.

Now, this is a test. When you see “JT,” what performer comes immediately to mind for you? Because there are two JTs.

One JT is a singer/songwriter, a five-time Grammy Award winner.

The other is also a singer/songwriter/actor and a six-time Grammy winner with four Emmy awards to boot.

One JT rose to fame well before the other was even a twinkle in his dad’s eye.

JT, Sr. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the start of the decade in which JT, Jr. would see the birth of his solo music career.

Both JTs are incredibly talented, legendary musicians. Both have made significant contributions to the music industry. One can draw an audience in with little more than a guitar and a microphone; the other provides a complete entertainment experience with an amazing production and mesmerizing dance moves. One has talent that spans the decades. The other will most definitely have the same staying power.

These two JTs are from different genres, different generations, and yet, they really share more in common than just their initials. I am, of course, talking about the legendary James Taylor and modern-day legend, Justin Timberlake.

James TaylorI will admit that when I hear someone refer to JT, my heart and mind go directly to James Taylor. I grew up listening to his soulful, smooth voice. Fire and Rain, Up on the Roof, Shower the People, How Sweet It Is…those songs and so many more are now and forever a part of American music culture. They are beautiful, heartfelt songs that just pull you in and embrace you in a gentle hug. I’ve been to a few JT, Sr. concerts and it’s a relaxing, settle-in, let your cares melt away for a couple of hours experience. When you leave a JT, Sr. concert you do feel “you’ve got a friend.”

Justin TimberlakeI did not get to go to JT, Jr.’s concert, but many of my friends did and Facebook was alive and “plinking” with accolades and start-struck exclamations throughout the evening. Thank you to all for sharing a bit of the action with those of us stuck at home. By all reports it was not just a concert, but a multi-sensory experience that the lucky members of the sold-out audience will not soon forget.

Trust me, if someone had called yesterday offering me an extra ticket to see Mr. Timberlake, I would have been there in a flash, singing along, dancing in my allotted one square foot of space at his concert. But I won’t call him JT. I can’t.

Now I know some of you are calling me an old fart. But this is really not about the fact that the echo from the other side of the generation gap is growing a bit louder every year. This is about loyalty, memories, and that mellifluous voice that belongs to the original JT.

So when you hear someone refer to JT, you may spell it out J-U-S-T-I-N T-I-M-B-E-R-L-A-K-E. But for me? Well, call me old-school if you must—but for me, there is only one man who can wear the nickname, JT. My Sweet Baby James.

Loving Cookie



All evening long she hears my voice. “Cookie, what are you up to?

“Cookie, what do you have?”

“Cookie, don’t chew on that!”

“Co-UH-okie!” (This is the noise you WILL make as she vaults off of your abdomen to race outside with the other dogs).

She is a little bundle of black and white energy. She has a strong will and an enthusiastic love for life, despite a rather rocky beginning. But that beginning is a faded memory for Cookie—if a part of her memory at all. She is strong, healthy, and very much loved now. She is Jim’s special little girl.

She was an unintentional addition to our family. We welcomed her as a foster dog—you know, we were rescuing her—but she, in turn, captured a spot in our hearts left aching after two recent losses. Cookie is here now, Cookie is here forever.

So the lessons will continue. We’ll likely have a few more socks murdered before it’s all said and done. A small price to pay, really. As the night surrounds us with a sleepy embrace, and our little dynamo cuddles up to me , doing what she truly does best, I’m reminded how very lucky we are.

Now, if she would just show me where my other slipper is, all would be well.

Finding the New Normal

Sunflower sunset (2)I attended a very moving memorial service this past week. A man—husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend—died suddenly and very tragically. He was an exceptional man in life—talented, accomplished, intelligent, faithful, loving and devoted, to name just a few of his attributes. In one horrible moment, in one terrible accident, he was gone.

I sat in the balcony watching the church sanctuary fill with faces like mine, strained with disbelief and sorrow. It was just unimaginable that we were going through these motions “in memory of” this vital man. It was impossible to grasp that he really could have been taken so soon from this world to which he had contributed so greatly.

I watched his family file in. His wife’s expression a window directly into her shattered heart; her sons on either side of her, supporting her, while trying to come to terms with their own enormous loss. At one point, just as they reached their seats in the long pew, the now-widow turned to her oldest boy with her hand covering her mouth, her eyes folding into agonized, tear-filled creases. It was as if being in this place finally forced her to abandon shocked disbelief to come face-to-face with harsh, unyielding reality. And then I watched her son instantly became a man as he put his arms around his mother, pulling her protectively close.

This very poignant, private moment, only fleetingly visible to me from my balcony vantage point, transported me back to not-so-distant times when my own sense of loss and confusion seemed too great to bear. For just a moment, I was lost in a dark and painful part of my mind that I have worked very hard to control, if not conquer. I felt the weight of loss bearing down. I felt that hollow spot grow in my heart—the one that makes you wonder if it can ever be filled again. I saw beautiful hues of color streaming through stained glass windows turn to nothing but shades of gray.

As I stared at this bereaved family, mired in the visage of my own darkness, a friend seated next to me quietly asked me a question , thankfully jarring me back into the moment. Back to this family’s moment, as the door to my own past gently closed once again.

The service was beautiful, heartfelt, and upbeat in appropriate moments. There were memories shared, moments of laughter, and heads bowed in prayer as a brilliant, but all-too-brief life was honored. Following the service, we all congregated in a reception hall to offer condolences, hugs, tissues, and support. I made my way to the brother of the deceased—a high school classmate of mine. He, like the rest of his family, was encircled by dozens of people offering their love and words of solace. I stepped forward for my turn in the long line and saw a glimmer of recognition bring a smile to his face—we had not seen each other in years. I hugged him and told him that I too had lost a sibling, my sister, at about the same age as his brother was. He said, “So you know. You know what this feels like.” I said, yes, that I did know. He looked at me with pooling eyes and said, “I’m just hoping that it gets easier. I hope it gets easier.”

I found that I could not bring myself to say the words he so desperately wanted to hear. Just then, another friend walked up and the conversation moved on, but his words, and my lack of a ready response, remained stuck in my mind. Why hadn’t I been able to tell him that yes, with time, it will get easier?

I thought about it the rest of the day and then finally that night, in that quiet time when my brain is not asked to multitask, the answer hit me. I don’t think it does get easier. This kind of loss does not heal, or go away. You just get better at it.

You get better at dealing with it. You find a way to think about your lost loved one not in terms of tragedy, but in terms of joy, of shared experience. You feel them in your heart as a living force that, while gone from this immediate existence, is still very much a part of your life, part of the fiber of who you are.

This family has so much ahead. Perhaps the hardest moments of all come when the shock of the death, the quick planning, and the memorial service come to an end. The hardest moments come when you walk away from the funeral, back into your home, back into your life.

It’s at this point that the world seems to come to a halt. Everything is too quiet. And the stillness does nothing to calm the chaos that rages in your mind as it tries to make sense of something that defies all rationality. Everyone else gets to go home to their normal lives, but you’re just not sure what that even is now.

The concept of picking up and moving on seems impossible. Old routines seem foreign. Everything is out of order, everything seems incomprehensible, overwhelming. You can dream about the “old normal,” you can yearn for it, you can try to cling to it with all of your strength, but it’s gone. There’s no going back.

I remember a time of being at this very point of transition, firmly in the grip of darkness, praying out loud for normal. Dear God, I begged, please just let me find my new normal, whatever that may be. No more highs, no more lows. Please just bless me with normal.

And eventually, the new normal does appear. Daily routines alter, but become comfortable. A certain rhythm falls into place, and if you let them, rays of warm light start to penetrate that dark place in your mind. Not driving the darkness away, but helping it find a place where it can rest, where peace is allowed to blanket it.

Now, for this lovely family, I wish for them memories filled with joy, strength in unity, grace to allow the tears to fall, and, when the time is right, a new normal that leads to an exceptional life for all. I believe that where there is immense sorrow, our loving God, our universe, will replace it with an equal amount of jubilation, happiness and fulfillment. We just have to be willing to embrace it, and give thanks once again.

Finding the new normal is the first tiny step.

Paying Homage to the Candy Man

Candy man (3)

The candy of choice. Never question the Candy Man’s judgement on this topic.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013—11/12/13—my father would have celebrated his 87th birthday. This is the first birthday I have celebrated without him here.

I could have chosen to be sad that day. I could have chosen to go sit at his graveside to reflect on my loss. Could have. But BOY would I have heard about it from Dad. No, really. My Dad would have found a way to reach right out of the great beyond to shake his finger directly at my nose for sure.

Dad was not a “sit around and mourn for me” kind of guy. He was loud, opinionated, funny, kind, wildly generous, and did I mention funny? So it was important to me that I honor his special day in a Dad-appropriate manner.

Dad lived at the Oklahoma Methodist Manor (OMM), a retirement community in Tulsa. He and Mom moved to one of the small independent homes on campus in 2004, and then, as Mom’s care needs increased, he moved to follow her—first to an independent apartment in the main building and finally to a comfortable apartment in the assisted living wing. A lot happened during that journey of less than a decade, but we’ll leave most of that to another day, another story.

Mom passed away in 2009 when she was 85. She and Dad had been married for 61 years, so it was a huge life change for Dad. I know he missed her, I know he felt  lost without her. Add to that the fact that Dad’s own health challenges had forced changes that truly limited his ability to do a lot of the things he truly loved. Failing eyesight, limited mobility—yes the aging process can be a mean little bitch.

So what’s a man to do? Well, had out candy, of course. Yes, candy. Lots of it. This was not a new theme for my dad. In fact, I can’t recall a day in my life when Dad’s candy stash wasn’t filled to the brim. Oh, and did I mention he was a dentist? Yes…dental health was the man’s life, but he handed out candy non-stop. He was a living, breathing oxymoron. Or was he just creating his own job security? That little mystery has gone to the grave with him and the truth shall never be known.

So, take one outgoing man, with a sharp mind, and…well, truth be told…a pulse, and place him in an assisted living home where the ratio of men to women was approximately one to 40, and you have a very popular man. Now hand that man a bag of Hershey’s Nuggets miniature candy bars and you have basically created a modern-day, senior citizen Romeo. Yeah, Dad was one popular dude. Popular to the point that his name officially became “Candy Man.” Everyone—residents and staff alike—knew who the fabled Candy Man was.

You have to love it. I may even appreciate his genius a little more now than I did then. You see, I was his candy mule. I was the supplier. I got to make the trek to Sam’s Club every couple of weeks to clear their shelves of bags and bags of Dad’s candy of choice and then lug it back to the Methodist Manor so that everyone in his path, every single day, could have some. That stuff was heavy, but shame on me for the times when I mentally complained about having to get it (never to Dad, though. Never to Dad.).

Though there was a two Nugget limit per person to keep things in check, Dad’s generous habit still easily cost him two to three hundred dollars a month. But, it was his joy, and who was I to put a damper on that?

The kicker is that Dad had developed diabetes late in life and could not enjoy his own sweet little offerings. Not even one Nugget passed that man’s lips. He was very dedicated to managing his condition and faithful to his dietary restrictions.

Dad entered the hospital the day after his birthday last year and passed away 19 days later. I have to believe that many a sweet tooth shed a tear that day and the population of the Holliman Assisted Living wing at OMM probably lost an average of five pounds in the ensuing weeks. Oh, the word bittersweet has never been more appropriate.

So on 11/12/13, I revisited my path to the candy isle at Sam’s Club. I bought bags of Hershey’s Nuggets. I drove to Dad’s old stomping grounds. I found his favorite aide, Dunnel—a wonderfully cheerful man with an almost too-good-to-be-true African accent—and I gave him enough Nuggets to ensure that all residents and employees could have two. No more, no less. And I smiled. Dunnel smiled. And you know, I know darn well that Dad smiled too.

Happy birthday, Candy Man. I love you.

The Wonky Shopping Cart of Gratitude: 30 days in 30 minutes.


Pick a cart. Any cart. I guarantee I will manage to pick the wonky cart.

Last night I was at Walmart for my weekly shopping foray. I grabbed a cart and gave it a little test drive in the foyer area to be sure it rolled properly. I am notoriously famous for selecting the wonky cart. You know the one…one wheel sticks sideways, or doesn’t roll at all and constantly pulls to one side.  This particular cart seemed good to go so I headed into the store. About five minutes later, after having procured dog biscuits and Band-Aids (which are oddly near each other), my cart started leading me in a steady circle to the left. WHAT? I tested this cart. It was fine! But no, wonky cart had lulled me into a false sense of security.

So I found myself manically circling the display of brightly colored Rachel Ray cookware. Nothing I do makes the cart go any other direction. Nothing. So what do I do? I just burst out laughing. I continue to circle Rachel’s fabulous kitchen gadgets, which include her signature EVOO (Rach’s spunky abbreviation for extra virgin olive oil, in case you’ve missed her show) dispenser.

I am fairly sure no one else understood the humor in my situation. I am fairly sure no one else understood that I was being held hostage by wonky cart. I am fairly sure I was the crazy lady on isle five. Fortunately for me, bizarre behavior is commonplace at our Walmart and deemed perfectly acceptable.

Anyhow, when I finally got wonky cart to head a different direction, though I had to muscle that stubborn cart every step of the way, I found gratitude in the fact that my shopping adventure was once again underway. It was then and there that I realized I had really failed in the 30 Days of Gratitude challenge that so many people are undertaking this month. I think I made it to day five and then baled.

It’s not that I’m ungrateful. It’s not that I don’t have a great deal for which I can be grateful. I think I just got so wrapped up in trying to come up with something profound to list each day that I kind of lost sight of the true meaning of the challenge.

Well, I may suck at the daily task, but I am bursting with an attitude of gratitude, so I decided to just go for it—30 thoughts of gratitude in 30 minutes (in deference to Rachel’s 30 minute meals since she played a part in the wonky cart revelation). They are in no particular order, so don’t get your feelings hurt if you find yourself in the middle. If you’re toward the end, then just tell yourself I saved the best for last. If you think I missed something, well, I am very sure I did. As I said, I have way more than a month’s worth of gratitude in me.

So here goes…30 things for which I am very grateful include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Jim. I’m very thankful for Jim. There is likely no other person on this earth that would willingly share the insanity that is Tails You Win Farm with me. You have to love a man that manages to sleep with a 50-pound dog plastered across his face. At least I think he’s asleep…(mirror test in front of his mouth to check for breathing)…yes! Asleep.
  2. My animals. All of them.  I have a crazy, fun variety of critters that share my world and I love them. All of them. Most of the time.
  3. Our home. It may never be totally finished, it may always be messy, there may always be a not-so-light coating of dog hair everywhere, but it’s our home and I love it. By the way, if you ever build a house and move in before it’s totally completed saying the words “we’ll do the finish work ourselves,” get a good, heavy DIY home improvement book and smack yourself in the head with it. Hard.
  4. My Jeep Wrangler. It makes me feel outdoorsy, a bit rugged, capable, and cool. And it talks to me. How great is that? My car talks to me. There is a male voice that gives me driving directions and a female voice that places phone calls for me and reads text messages to me. I do occasionally wonder if that is backwards because sometimes I really want the male voice to stop to ask for directions. He does tend to recommend some really odd routes. Just saying…
  5. Neighbors who don’t get angry…or get a gun…when they find my stray hog/mule/donkey/horse in their front yard.
  6. The guy I’m going to hire to come repair my pasture fencing before #5 wears off. I don’t know him yet, but I am grateful to him in advance.
  7. My house shoes. I have the greatest pair of house shoes. Seriously. Ugg house shoes. Treat yourself to some and I guarantee I will be on your 30 day list next year.
  8. House Hunters International. I am addicted to that show. I’m still shocked that most houses in other countries don’t come with kitchen appliances, and that closets in bedrooms are often optional. Huh?
  9. Bananas that are perfectly freckled.
  10. My family. I’ve had it pretty good in life. Cool parents, great sisters. Now I have nieces, nephews, and the “greats.” All gorgeous, smart, fun people. Sometimes I’m amazed that we are actually blood relatives. Love these people.
  11. My friend and business partner, Lawanna. We have built Pooches together over the past eight years and it would not have happened without her brains and determination.  Grateful for our employees, customers, and the mad variety of dogs that grace our facility—and usually pee in our facility—every day.
  12. Grateful to my friend Bob who, in 1987, said that he thought Dalmatians were cool dogs. I would have never thought to get a Dalmatian had he not planted that seed. If not for my spotted dogs, my life would have taken a completely different path. I like this path, so I’m grateful to Bob for mentioning Dalmatians.
  13. For Jim’s family. They are great, intelligent, fun-loving people and they have taught me to play games. Lots of games. Dominoes, board games, card games. I did not grow up in a family that played many games. I’m not great at them, but I’m learning. Might I add that these are competitive people…their games are serious business and there is taunting. I think I’m taking Twister to the Thanksgiving gathering. They beat me at all of the games that require you to think, but with my freakishly long arms, I think I can go for the gold in Twister.
  14. Diet Dr. Pepper and duct tape. I don’t think either of these items require explanation, so I’ve lumped them together. If you don’t get it, then you just don’t get me.
  15. Facebook. Say what you will, Betty White, but I don’t think it’s a colossal waste of time at all. Ok, well, sometimes it is, but for the most part it has been a place of connection for me…old friends, new friends, friends and family across the miles, friends I’ve never met before, and pirates who inspire me (inside joke…but a good one. If you get it, you’re laughing. If not…sorry).
  16. Betty White. I love that woman. Facebook comment totally forgiven.
  17. My health. Your health. Everybody’s health. Strong and healthy, strong and healthy. Chant with me.
  18. Cloudy, cold, rainy days because they make me appreciate gorgeous, sunny days all the more.
  19. Our foster dog T-Mac and his miracle saliva. I had horrible chigger bites all over my legs a couple of months ago. That dog licked my legs and the bites disappeared. I am not making this up. I’m going to bottle that slobber as soon as I uncover all of its uses.
  20. The comeback of the Hostess Ding Dong. Don’t judge me.
  21. My aesthetician, Gabe. Every couple of months he makes me look like a zombie for a day or two, but oh how I love that baby-butt skin that follows. (Nothing fancy like injections of botulism …just chemical peels. I must add that you have to have a great level of confidence in the person who says he is going to administer a “controlled trauma” to your facial epidermis. Yes, I’m grateful for Gabe and his mad acid skills.)
  22. Audible books. I love listening to books while I commute to and from work. Love it. I may make a recording of this blog so I can see how it feels to be a famous author.
  23. The artists who read the books in my audio library. I just tried to make my own recording and let’s just say I do not have a future in that industry. Do I really sound like that to other people? Ugh. Don’t confuse that with Ugg. Uggs good—ugh bad.
  24. I’m grateful to whoever invented the Magic Eraser and Pill Pockets. Genius. Wish I had thought of them first.
  25. Spanx. I’m increasingly grateful for Spanx.  I don’t call on them often, but on those rare occasions when I need to dress up…well…that’s all I’m saying about that.
  26. My crazy friends who challenge me to run in equally crazy races to hopefully help curb my need for Spanx. Who knew zombie races would introduce me to some of the greatest friends in the world?
  27. Mary Faye McFarland. She was my high school English teacher. She’s the reason I know cool stuff like “it-apostrophe-s” always means “it is.” It-apostrophe-s is not the possessive form of “it.” Crazy, right? And “Hey Nancy, did you lose (“s” makes a “z” sound) your pig…” means I should go check my neighbor’s yard for Jerry Swinefeld, while “Hey Nancy your pig is loose…” (hissing “s” sound) means that my pig is actually running amok in the neighbor’s yard. There, their, they’re, people. We all mess this stuff up. I’m pretty sure Mary Faye would make red marks all over my blog, but she will never catch me misusing “it’s!”
  28. My veterinarians, who are also my dear friends. These people never chastise me when I call to ask things like, “My dog just ate an entire couch cushion, what should I do?”
  29. The 12-step program that helped me stop playing Candy Crack…I mean Candy Crush. Again, don’t judge.
  30. Wonky shopping carts that remind me about gratitude and also give me an amazing upper body workout at the same time. The wonky shopping cart encounter taught me that gratitude does not always have to be about something profound and life-altering. It’s ok to be really grateful for the small stuff too. In fact, I should look for gratitude in every little moment of the day.

Damn. I sure wish November had 31 days, because I’m truly grateful to you for actually reading all the way to this point. And now here’s a little something for which (did you see that Mary Faye? I did not end my sentence with a preposition!) you may be very grateful…

The End. (Are you thankful?)

Follywood Power Couple Moves Into Upscale Tails You Win Loft Condominium


Jame Squirrel Jones sitting on the deck of his new loft condominium.

An up and coming power couple has secured a new high-profile address this week. Rumors have long circulated that Squirrely Temple and James Squirrel Jones were an item and now it appears that they are indeed sharing a new penthouse together.

Based on tips from Follywood insiders, we did confirm that Temple and Jones have just moved into a new-construction condo with a panoramic view of Lake Tails You Win (note: a pond is to a squirrel what a lake is to a human). Representatives for the couple confirm that the condo was custom built for the up and coming duo.

When asked about their new loft space, Temple said that they have settled right in and are putting their personal stamp on the decor using wood gnawing techniques and a dead leaf motif. “We are also enjoying exploring our new neighborhood and are gradually meeting the neighbors,” Temple said.

Justin Beaver

Justin Beaver heading off to work.

Neighbors, indeed! Temple and Jones share a zip code with some fairly notable personalities. Within view of the couple’s condo is the lakeside cabin of Justin Beaver. “We have yet to meet Justin because he is always working,” said Jones. “But we have been keeping an eye on his home renovations. Industrious guy…does he ever stop with the new additions?” Jones and Temple also hinted that they are a bit nervous about Beaver’s penchant for landscaping. “He seems to like to clear a lot of trees, which obviously makes us a tad nervous,” Temple said with a laugh.

Jerry and Spammy

Anderson and Swinefeld dining out.

Jerry bath

Jerry Swinefeld enjoying a Tail’s You Win Spa Treatment

Within easy leaping distance of the couple’s loft is Follywood odd couple, Spamela Anderson and Jerry Swinefeld, who run the Tails You Win Spa. “We have met Spamela and Jerry,” said Temple. “Apparently the spa only features mud treatments, but I will say that Spammy’s skin looks fabulous, so I may give it a try.”

Ferris 2

Ferris Muler out at a local hotspot.

Also in the immediate area are Ferris Muler and Harry Ass Truman. According to Jones they have yet to meet Muler. “He’s always having a day off. If he’s ever home, Squirrely and I will make a point to meet him, though. He seems like a fun-loving guy.”


Truman confirms that he is indeed an ass. He’s fine with that.

As for Truman? “He’s a real ass,” stated Temple. “Really. He’s an ass. An actual ass.”

Well, that comment ought to set Follywood tongues to wagging! We’ll keep an eye on this couple as they continue to settle into their new home. Rumors are already circulating that Jones prefers to stay in while Temple has been known to be gone for hours on end. Appears she’s a bit more of a social ladder…or tree as the case may be… climber. Are we going out on a limb to suggest that this power couple’s relationship might be a bit shaky? Time will tell. Nuttier things have happened.

File photo of Squirrely Temple from her debut as a child star.

It’s a Love/Hate Thing. But Mostly Love.

rascalThere is one rule you MUST follow when naming your puppy. Don’t name your puppy Rascal. I would also suggest you not name a puppy Rowdy, Tuffy, Messy, Taz, Barky, Destructo, or any other self-fulfilling-prophecy name like that. Please. For goodness sake name that puppy Angel, or Sweetie, or Einstein.

Rascal. He is the dog I love to hate, but really love. He initially came into my world in the arms of a friend who found him wandering between my dog care business, Pooches, and the neighboring veterinary hospital. He was about three months old at that time; just a little bundle of coal black, shepherd mix cuteness in her arms. Who knew what was to come? Who knew? Certainly not me.

No one at my business recognized the puppy so we took him to the veterinary hospital to see if they might know him. They did not, but agreed to keep him to see if someone from the adjacent neighborhood might be looking for him. If no one claimed him, they would ask a local rescue group to take him into their program for placement. Perfect. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. So very, very wrong.

This is a case where good intentions went incredibly awry. The good folks at the vet hospital did take the puppy. They settled him in their kennel and took care of him. Unfortunately, after a holding period to see if someone might be looking for him, everyone kind of forgot about him.

Now, that sounds terrible. He did not ever lack for basic care. He was fed, housed, and allowed to exercise in a fenced yard. But no one ever thought to ask the rescue group to help find him a home. None of the kennel employees ever questioned the little black puppy that was growing up in their midst.

Three months after finding him, someone from the vet hospital called to tell me that they still had the stray pup. I was shocked. I hadn’t even thought to go back to check on him, shame on me. I just assumed he was in good hands. The pet adoption group could have easily found a home for a cute, little puppy.  And they would have. If only they had known.

So the little lost puppy was found once again, but now at about six months of age, he was not so little. The rescue group did agree to try to find him a home and dubbed him Rascal. A name he would live up to; a name I would sincerely regret.

As anyone familiar with puppy development—and anyone with common sense—will tell you, it is not mentally healthy for a young puppy to spend three months of his life living in a kennel environment with limited socialization. As a dog trainer, I constantly preach the importance of socialization for puppies. The experiences a puppy has in the weeks and months following weaning combine with inherited traits to determine the personality of the adult dog to come.

While people known to Rascal had no trouble handling him, anyone strange to him was…well…strange. Rascal had no idea how to meet and trust new people. That made it very entertaining to try to find him a home. As you can well imagine, people just line right up to adopt an adolescent dog that bares his teeth and sounds off like Cujo when newcomers dare look at him, let alone try to say hello.

By nature, Rascal was an active, intelligent, protective dog. Lack of crucial life experience, however, turned him into 60 pounds of reactive dog. So what is a reactive dog? Well, simply put, reactivity in dogs is a common behavioral problem in which a dog displays an overreaction to external stimuli. The stimuli could be people, other dogs, other types of animals, noises, motion, or any combination thereof. Reactive behavior can manifest as excessive barking, whining, lunging, acting out aggressively, panting, hyperactivity, and other less-than-endearing behaviors. It is an overly emotional display.

In Rascal’s case, his triggers and subsequent behavior pretty much included everything listed above and then some.

Feeling partially responsible for Rascal’s journey, or lack thereof, my business partner and I decided we would house Rascal at Pooches where we could train with him daily and work to socialize him properly—hoping to make up for lost ground. Unfortunately for Rascal, living in a place with a number of dogs coming and going on a daily basis, and with a number of different people handling him—albeit understanding, sympathetic people—did not provide him the stable environment he needed to modify his reactive behavior.

So what to do with Rascal? Well, he could have continued to live at Pooches. His basic care needs would be met there, but with too much stimulation on an ongoing basis, he was not likely to make progress and could become even more difficult to handle. It would not be a fair or good life for him.

We could have chosen to euthanize Rascal. While that sounds harsh, and it is, the sad reality is that scores of lovely homeless dogs are euthanized in my hometown, as well as throughout the nation, on a daily basis. I have come to the hard realization that not every dog can be saved. Sometimes tough choices must be made. Would I devote my time, energy, and physical space to continue to try to work with a hyperactive, highly reactive dog, or should I devote my resources to other homeless dogs that had higher potential to find loving new homes?

The biggest question in my mind centered on Rascal’s own welfare. Was there a place in this world where Rascal could be kept safely and where he could be happy? Where he could have a good quality of life? While many people had come to know and love Rascal during his stay at Pooches, they were not exactly begging to call him their own.

Rascal sit

Rascal in my home-sweet-home.

And here is the tricky part—Rascal really was an intelligent dog that was very capable of learning. So I’m just going to admit right now that the rescuer in me could not turn her back on the puppy that got left behind. Meanwhile, the dog trainer in me could not resist the challenge and learning opportunity that the now-adult dog presented. Rascal came home to live with me, Jim, our own dogs, and our rotating group of foster dogs.

Fast forward seven years. Rascal is still alive and kicking. Rascal is still a very reactive dog. Even in our country home setting, if a leaf falls off of one of the trees in the back forty acres of our property, Rascal will likely leap up from a dead sleep, barking and growling hysterically, racing like a madman through the house. He is a joy. Really. A shiny black ray of freaking sunshine. Oh how I still love/hate this dog.

Rascal and JYDT

Rascal is oddly good with children. Here he is with Jim’s cute nephew. Please note, Rascal has never offered to bite any human and I did watch interactions between Jean-Yves and Rascal closely. You must always monitor dogs and children…even “good” dogs.

So why is he here? Well, because there really is a lot to love about this crazy dog. He is as affectionate as he is reactive. There is no in between with Rascal. If he doesn’t like you, he makes it abundantly clear. If he loves you, he loves you with everything he has. He is an extremely emotional dog.

Rascal is also very devoted to me. I think he would walk through a firestorm in a field of broken glass to get to me. This is a good thing, and also a bad thing. I have come to realize that I am one of Rascal’s major triggers. Yay me!

It’s true. If I walk into a room…or out of a room…or if I just stand up…or God forbid I cough, Rascal is likely to react with a loud, annoying display that disrupts every being in the house and within a 10 acre radius. When I come home from work, he goes nuts. When it’s time to feed the dogs, he gets agitated. If I step outside, he will bolt through the dog door, racing across the yard in a frantic, aggressive manner.

No amount of yelling or correction will calm the beast that lives inside Rascal. Trying to “punish” a reactive dog is like adding a layer of gunpowder on top of a bundle of dynamite. You’re just adding fuel to the fire.

Ok, so time to put on my dog trainer hat and figure this dog out, right? Every dog is different; every dog is a puzzle for a trainer to solve. Most importantly, every dog is a learning opportunity. Rascal is certainly no exception. He has been my teacher for more than seven years now.

So what is Rascal teaching me? He is teaching me that things go much better when I stay really calm when dealing with him. This is an ongoing challenge because BOY sometimes you just want to yell at this dog to please SHUT THE @#%* UP. But yelling just fuels him, and the other dogs too. One thing I have discovered is that if I use calming signals with him, he will settle down almost immediately.

Calming signals can be defined as body language and physical cues dogs display to avoid conflict, invite play, and communicate a wide range of information to other dogs…and people if we are willing to learn their language. Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist, Turid Rugaas sums calming signals up as a dog’s attempt to defuse situations that might otherwise result in fights or aggression. If you are interested in dog behavior, I highly recommend you read her book, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. It is, in my opinion, pure gold for trainers, or anyone interested in learning more about their own dogs.

So what are calming signals in the dog world? Well, there are a number of physical cues dogs use and understand instinctively. Licking the nose or flicking the tongue out, turning the head away, sitting down, sniffing the ground, walking slowly, offering a play bow, freezing in place, yawning, and grinning, just to name a few.

I try to use calming signals when Rascal has a reaction that centers on me. I will walk slowly. I will turn away from him. I will sit down. These actions have shown amazing results in helping him return to a calm state, thereby allowing me to give him verbal direction and eventual praise. He is learning that by calming down, he will receive my attention.

Another tool that is valuable in working with a reactive dog, and vital to Rascal’s existence, is providing a place where the dog can go for “time out.” This is not punishment. This is literally a place where the dog can go to feel secure and calm. For Rascal, it is his crate. He is very comfortable in his crate and he will go to it on cue from just about anywhere in our house. If I see Rascal’s behavior escalating, I just tell him “kennel,” and he bolts away to hop into his crate. Sometimes he even sends himself to his crate. It is his safe space and he is very relaxed there. This is an invaluable tool for us.

I have also taught Rascal to play the “touch” game. This exercise centers on target training—a popular exercise used by clicker trainers. Very basically, you teach a dog to touch a specific target with his nose. This is a fun, easy lesson for dogs and handlers, and one that can prove to be quite useful when working with the Rascals of the world.

In Rascal’s case I use the palm of my hand as the target. I move my hand from place to place asking Rascal to “touch.” Each time he touches my palm, I mark his success with the word “YES” and reward him with praise and affection (food rewards are often used to teach the game, but Rascal responds well without food). You can also use a clicker, but in Rascal’s fast-paced world, I don’t always have a clicker handy, so I have taught him using “YES” as his marker for correct behavior.

Now I have put this game to use when Rascal has potential to become agitated or reactive. If I know one of Rascal’s many triggers is about to happen or is happening, I will ask Rascal to come “touch.” I have started seeing great success in heading off a full-blown outburst from him using this simple exercise. It also allows me to remain very calm and soft-spoken, which helps calm Rascal too. It’s our little doggy Zen moment that cues Rascal to come to me instead of whirling around like the Tasmanian devil on crack.


Edie the Enforcer!

And for all of the times when I can’t be right there to monitor Rascal’s potential outbursts? Well, I now have an entertaining little training assistant in the form of my Australian cattle dog, Edie. Edie is 38 pounds of lean, agile, intelligent, muscle just begging for a job. She and I found each other at a small animal shelter and it was mutual love at first sniff.  The only problem for Edie living in my world? No cattle.

Well, no problem. Edie has decided that Rascal is her cow. If he is not in his crate, Edie is on the job. She monitors his every breath. The only time she takes a break is when Rascal is in his crate with the door secured.

If Rascal starts to have one of his outbursts, Edie is there, nipping at his side, jumping in front of him to head him off. I initially worried that Rascal might hurt Edie out of frustration, but she’s just too fast on her feet and even if he does try to lunge after her, she can spin out of the way in half of an instant. I have literally seen this little bundle of energy run full speed BACKWARDS to keep an eye on Rascal. Yes, completely backwards.

The effect? Well, Edie adds a bit of hysteria at times, but more often than not I do see Rascal backing down…giving up…throwing in the towel. Edie is relentless in pursuing her “cow.” While their relationship seemed quite adversarial initially, now there seems to be an odd kinship between the two. Most recently I have seen them playing together, displaying beautiful soft, curved body language and truly enjoying wrestling around with each other. Something I have never seen Rascal do with another dog—an interesting turn of events that I absolutely love.

So what’s next for Rascal? Well, he has just celebrated his eighth birthday. I never thought I would say this about one of my dogs, but I honestly hope like hell that he starts to act old sooner than later. We’ve seen no signs that he’s slowing down at all, but I cling to that hope. A mellow, slow, sweet Rascal would be an amazing thing.

At this stage, however, he is in peak condition and still raring to teach me a thing or two. And I am still his willing, fascinated, and often frustrated student. I still utter threats to him on a daily basis—hey, if it’s said in a nice voice, and you don’t actual follow through on the threats, you can pretty much say anything you want to a dog and they’ll just wag away. He has no idea that my singsong voice is threatening grave bodily harm.

In reality, I do love this dog. Really I do. Well, when I’m not busy hating him, I really do love him. I am Grasshopper, he is my sensei.

Finding Gratitude on a Rainy, Gray Day.

Rainy day gratitudeIt was one of those days from the start. Dreary, sleepy, and raining pretty much non-stop. It would have been a great day if all I had to do was curl up with a good book, snuggled beneath a soft blanket with my herd of dogs napping all around me. But no. It was a get-up-and-get-moving kind of day. My shoes and feet got wet the moment I stepped out the front door, seemingly setting the stage, and my mood, for the rest of the soggy, damn day.

Still, I needed to find something for which to be grateful today. It’s November and everyone in my world seems to be participating in the “30 days of Gratitude,” during which you proclaim something you are thankful for each day of the month. It should be easy, really. My life is very blessed. But without even one single ray of sunshine to greet me, my heart was just not in the gratitude game. And so I slogged through the day and the day slogged on around me.

After work, I needed to make a quick stop at the grocery store before I could head home to shed my still-soggy shoes, slip into my blissfully cozy house shoes, and hide from Mother Nature for a bit. As I was crossing the parking lot, the clouds, of course, decided to step things up from sprinkle to healthy little rain shower. Just then I noticed a tiny, older woman struggling to transfer groceries from her shopping cart to her car. As she lifted a single bag and turned to place it in the backseat, I quickly gathered up the three remaining bags and deposited them inside the car for her, hoping to spare her the complete soaking I was about to get before I could duck into the store.

As I was about to turn away, this dear woman looked up directly into my face, grabbed my hand with surprising strength for one of such delicate stature, and with great sincerity said, “Thank you so much! God is going to bless you today.”

Time seemed to still in that moment. I looked from our interlaced hands down into her face as it crinkled softly into a glowing smile. Words downplaying my actions were right on the tip of my tongue…after all, it was really nothing. I just lifted a few grocery bags. But instead of brushing our exchange aside, I found myself holding onto her hand, returning her smile, and saying, “Thank you. He just did.”

And God did bless me today. This precious woman was put in my path this afternoon to remind me that there is always a reason to be grateful. Always.

Today I am grateful for a tiny special moment shared with a stranger on a dreary, rainy, glorious day. It is amazing how you can give just a little of yourself and receive such great blessings in return. Yes, I am truly grateful.

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” —”
― William Arthur Ward

“Courtesies of a small and trivial character are the ones which strike deepest in the grateful and appreciating heart.”
― Henry Clay

Today is the Day.

Squirrely by pond

Squirrely surveying her new domain…and not yet realizing that the door to her cage is open.

“Today! Today is the day,” they both exclaim with excited glee.
“Today? Oh I don’t know,” I ponder. “It’s very windy.”
“It’s perfect,” they say, with no small amount of pleading in their bright little eyes. “Absolutely perfect.”
“But doesn’t it seem a little chilly?”
“Noooooo! We’re fine! Today is perfect,” they proclaim once again.

Perfect for whom? Well, truth be told, it would likely never be perfect for me. There would always be too much wind. Too much chill in the air. Not enough leaves providing shelter. Too many hawks sailing through our airspace. A chance of rain. Not enough hours of daylight left to allow me to watch over their first steps into this big world.

Feeding James

Tiny, sweet baby James Squirrel Jones.

No, there would never be a perfect day. Left up to my worrisome mind, there might always be something standing between these two little beings and their rightful place in nature. Wasn’t it only yesterday that they were no larger than my thumb and completely helpless?

But as I look at them with their alert faces, strong legs, fluffy tails, and sharply gripping paws that border on having the dexterity of hands, I see the truth.

20131103_121929 (2)

The door is open…Squirrely Temple and James Squirrel Jones are free to go…or stay. Free to stay around a bit too.

“Ok, you’re right,” I sigh.
Today is the day.
Today is your day.