Behind Me, to the Left

boog 8 18I make breakfast as I do every day. Fast.

When you are feeding 20-plus hungry dogs, fast is a good skill. I realize that last statement places me in the “crazy dog lady” category, and I’m good with it.

What is normal for me and Jim is outlandish to most. Suspect, even. But rest assured, our dogs are well-loved, well cared for, and well spoiled. We run a rescue and foster most of our furry charges ourselves. This means our home is a bit different from most, but it’s also chaotically fun and incredibly snuggly.  Hey, if the Duggers can manage all those kids, whats a couple dozen dogs?

So back to breakfast. I have a system, I know which bowl is going to which dog, I know how much each dog eats. Yeah, I have mad kibble skills. On the other side of the coin, the hungry dogs know the drill as well. They know where they eat, they know in what order they will be served. Newcomers catch on fast. It is the same every single day.

Except today.

Today, as I set the bowls down, each one in the same order as always, I hit a glitch. Howie’s bowl, Kainan and Snow next, Mickey, and on, and on, until I turn to my left with Boog’s bowl. Boog isn’t there.

Boog always eats just behind where I prep the food and to the left. Only one other time in the history of Boog has his smiling face failed to be in that spot at mealtime. And that turned out to be a bad, scary day.

That was the day we almost lost our boy to a splenic tumor, the silent monster that decided to very suddenly make its terrifying presence known. Thankfully, we knew the symptoms, and thankfully we were able to save his life. (Read the whole story here.) But that tumor turned out to be more than just a one-time unwelcome guest. Boog was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, a rapidly growing, highly invasive variety of cancer that occurs almost exclusively in dogs.

Ultrasound also revealed a mass in Boog’s perfect, sweet heart. No biopsy can safely be done, but the logical assumption is that it is the same type of cancer. A cruel double whammy for our special boy.

No dog deserves this diagnosis, but certainly not Boog. He is the boy who captured our hearts from the moment he was born. His mother was our foster dog, Olive. She came to us in a very delicate condition and soon delivered eight healthy little polar bears…Boog the only one to be completely soft white with no patches of color.

IMG_9858Over the first weeks of their lives it was amazing to watch the overcoat of black or red hairs mixing in with the white to create the trademark blue or red coloring of the cattle dog. Often, I would come home from work to check on Olive and her family only to find seven squirming pups instead of eight. That eighth little guy could always be found nestled on Jim’s shoulder. I knew pretty early on that Boog would not be leaving the farm.

Boog was one of those dogs that just fell perfectly into our world. We never gave him a minute of formal training, yet he has always been the dog that will stick to your heels, leash or no leash, no matter where you go. He is loyal, smart, and quick to figure things out. He’s the dog I can take with me when training with a shy or reactive dog. He is an excellent teacher’s aide. If Boog has a flaw, it’s that he just can’t hold his licker. If you are going to say a close and personal hello to Boog, he may just think your face needs a quick and thorough washing as well.

And now, in an unfair twist of fate, veterniary medicine was trying to tell us our Boog’s prognosis was grim. Statistically speaking, dogs with this type of cancer have a life expectancy of only one to three months post diagnosis. But as far as I can see, Boog does not have an expiration date printed anywhere on his handsome little body. So statistics be damned.

Because Boog’s health is otherwise good, we decided to give chemotherapy a try with the agreement that if it was too hard on him in any way, we would stop. We want our boy’s time in this life to be happy and as care-free as possible. So quality will always rule the day for him.

Boog cruised through his first treatment remarkably well. Three weeks after that, he handled his second treatment like a school boy thumbing his nose at the playground bully. Then, after another three weeks, he had his third treatment. And that brings us to the day, three days post treatment, when Boog was not behind me, to the left, in line for breakfast. And the same was true for dinner that evening.

He was quiet. The switch on his normal full-body squirm was in the off position. He looked at his food bowl with troubled eyes, licking his lips and turning his head away. The cumulative effects of the chemo had finally caught up to him. We had medicine on hand for this possibility to help sooth his queezy stomach. We would help him feel better. Tomorrow he would surely be in his place.

But tomorrow let us down. Once again, when I turned around to my left with food in hand, Boog was absent, once again for both breakfast and dinner. We tried chicken. We tried canned food. We tried. Boog’s sweet face answered with a polite, quiet no-thank-you each time.

The next tomorrow failed us too and I felt my heart getting squeezed just a little tighter with each rejected meal.

It made me question the logic of pushing on. In truth, Boog was not horribly ill. He was not throwing up. He was not completely shut down. It was nothing terribly dramatic. But knowing Boog…well…it was just hard to see him down like that.

On the sixth day post chemo, I stood in my usual spot, surrounded by the normal undulating sea of hungry canine energy. I fixed all of the bowls. placed them in order on the counter. I gave Howie his bowl. I fed Kainan and Snow, Mickey, and so on. Then it was time to turn behind me to the left.

20180528_124814And there, in all of his eager glory, was Boog. His eyes were bright with anticipation. His body vibrating with his trademark, barely contained energy. Boog was ready for his meal.

As soon as I placed the bowl in front of him, he was gobbling his food down with his normal do-I-really-need-to-chew intensity. I stood for a moment reveling in the snarf, crunch, gulp sounds before the impatience of a dozen or so other dogs brought me back to my Flo-the-waitress persona and I continued slinging bowls to my famished patrons.

Boog’s clean bowl on this day was a thing of beauty, especially given the fact that we had just passed the three-month mark post surgery. You know, the mark medical science suggested we wouldn’t likely see. I never was very good at science. Thank goodness Boog doesn’t seem to pay attention to it either.

We have two more chemo appointments ahead. I take a very deep breath every time I think about that. In reality, Boog really is doing well. His blood work is holding steady and I’d say 98% of the time he acts like his normal self. But oh how that 2% twists around in my heart and mind. Math is no more my subject than science, but during this journey 2% seems HUGE at times.

Today, however, we are securely back in our wiggly, hungry, always-behind-me-to-the-left 98% happy place. This place feels very good. I will work hard to not let 2% of doubt overshadow 98% of hope. I think even my past math and science teachers would unanomously applaud that idea.

Hey Boog, I still don’t see any expiration dates on you. See you at dinner, buddy.

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There’s No Place Like Home. Just ask Boog.

 

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Adorable pic of Boog by Kara Hamilton. Mad photos skills.

Please, take me home.

I could hear his voice as clearly as if he suddenly had been granted the gift of human language.  However, the voice I was hearing was not audible, but rather coming from the pleading look in his tired eyes.

I need to g20180528_130955o home. 

Looking down at my boy, hooked up to all kinds of monitors, IV lines, a feeding tube, and a catheter, I knew it couldn’t happen. Not right now, Boog. You need to be here for now. I would not tell him no. Instead, I would tell him, and myself, soon. Soon, Boog.

Boog’s journey to this place, to the intensive care unit of a well-respected specialty veterinary hospital was brief and terrifying. On Sunday morning when we woke up, he was just a little off.

He didn’t want his breakfast – something that hasn’t happened in the nearly 10 years he has lived with us. He went away to a quiet part of the house to rest by himself – also not normal for our always-where-you-are, busy little cattle dog.

I had to leave the house to run a few errands, so told Jim about Boog’s odd behavior and asked him to keep an eye on him. So far, his breathing was normal, his gums and tongue were a good pink color, and he would get up and move around if asked. But a niggling little fear was bouncing around inside my gut.

Watch him. Don’t leave him alone.

Within a couple of hours Jim called to say that he was rushing Boog to a nearby vet that thankfully had Sunday hours. Boog had grown very weak…our boy was crashing. Already in my car heading home, I spun the wheel in the direction of the veterinary hospital to meet them.

The little fear that had been whispering inside me was now yelling at me, especially when I saw Boog again and could see how pale the pink areas of his lips and gums had become.

“Check his spleen,” I asked the moment we saw a veterinarian. Experience with so many dogs, especially the seniors we have taken in over the years, has taught us valuable lessons about the warning signs of several common, but deadly afflictions that can plague our dogs.  Older dogs are prone to tumors forming on their spleens. You won’t have any warning unless you happen to do x-rays or an ultrasound for some other reason and are lucky enough to find it. Most often a splenic tumor isn’t found until it ruptures and makes itself known with frightening, grim certainty.

My fear was quickly confirmed and our sweet boy was raced into surgery as we settled in for one very hard waiting game.

Boog came through surgery well enough, but during recovery his heart rate jumped to a concerning level. Instead of bringing Boog home to recover, he had to be transferred to the specialty veterinary hospital for 24-hour care.

“It’s just for the night, buddy,” Jim and I told him. “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

But tomorrow came and went with little improvement. Then another tomorrow. We visited our boy, we sat with him, watching for any little signs that he was turning that all-important corner. We knew there were a lot of hurdles in his future, the largest one being the question of the still-pending results of the biopsy on his tumor, but despite everything looming around us, despite all the what-ifs tapping us on the shoulder, we stayed focused on one thing. Boog needed to come home.

20180515_194301At the end of day three, as Boog flipped his tail against his bedding in greeting and we were starting to feel he was showing signs of improvement, one of the veterinarians stuck a pin in that little balloon of hope we were desperately trying to inflate.

“I don’t think Boog will be able to leave the hospital.”

Now, if you digest that statement for a moment, you pretty quickly realize she is suggesting that your dog should be euthanized. This was not the news we were prepared to hear. More importantly, it was not the message we were hearing from Boog.

The veterinarian had very valid concerns. Boog’s breathing was labored. He wasn’t showing a desire to get up…to try to move around. She and her collegues feared issues with his lungs that would lead to certain suffering and death. They had an educated hunch. But so did we.

Jim and I are very rational people. Because of our rescue work, we have loved and cared for more dogs at the end of their lives in the span of a few years than most people have in a lifetime. We do not let our dogs suffer. We do know when it’s time to let go.

But still…all I could hear was that quiet, insistent voice in my head.

I need to go home. Please, just take me home.

And then it hit me. Every time Jim and I visited Boog in the hospital, no matter how tired he was, no matter how bad he felt, he always gave us a tail wag. Always. And each time the techs overseeing his constant care would comment, “Oh look, he wagged his tail! He hasn’t done that for us.”

Boog ALWAYS wags his tail. No matter what. This dog is the friendliest, cheeriest dog I know. Not wagging his tail in greeting to the humans caring for him was HUGE. He was sending a message loud and clear.

So I faced the veterinarian who was trying to let us down so gently. I took a deep breath to quiet the huge lump in my throat as I smiled and told her that I thought Boog was depressed. I explained that we fully understood her concerns and that we all wanted what was best for Boog. And on this night, what Jim and I knew was best for our dog was to let him leave the hospital.

It was against the vet’s better judgement. I assured her we would stay with him every minute and if he started to have any more issues, we would have our personal vet on call to end any suffering, day or night. What was important in that moment was to get Boog home in time to watch sunset with us on our own front porch.

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Home, watching the sun set.

And so all of the tubes were unhooked. All of the monitors turned off. Boog was wheeled out to our waiting car on a gurney where one of the vet techs who had been caring for him helped Jim gently transfer Boog into the car, tears pooling in her eyes. In her mind, this was a goodbye. Bless her for caring for each of her patients so very much.

We got Boog home just in time to sit with him while the sun painted the sky in a pallet of colors that wished us a peaceful good night. Together, we watched our boy through the evening. Then Jim kept his special buddy company through the first night, I was on duty the following night.

And so the magic of home went to work. Boog’s eyes grew brighter. His tail thumped more often and with greater enthusiasm. His breathing calmed. He gained strength, step by step. And his appetite gradually returned.

Over the course of one week, with support from our personal veterinarian (how lucky are we that one of our dearest friends is also our trusted veterinarian?), we watched a furry miracle unfold. Boog went from a dog flat on his side with tubes and monitors attached all over his body, to our bright-eyed, bouncy, HUNGRY, happy-to-be-alive boy.

Now, let me be clear, the purpose of this article is not to question the veterinarians who so carefully and skillfully cared for Boog. They do their job well and we are extremely gratefully to have a state-of-the-art emergency/specialty veterinarian nearby.

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Boog, less than one week after coming home, sweet home.

The purpose of this article is to say that sometimes you have to go with your gut, even in the face of questionable odds. If we had just strictly listened to the hard facts on that Wednesday evening, we might have chosen to let Boog go. But sometimes, in the midst of the overwhelming hustle, bustle, black and white with shades of gray world of medical science, you need to mix in a good dose of heartfelt feeling. And so we did. And so Boog came home. And he is very much alive. In fact, just a week following his return to Tails You Win Farm, we celebrated his 10th birthday.

His challenges are not over…remember that biopsy? Well, the news wasn’t good. But my gut feeling is that we do have treasured time to share with our funny little blue dog. My gut says we have today, and most certainly tomorrow. I’ll take one day at a time quite happily and gratefully.

Boog gets to call the shots now. Two weeks ago he almost died. A few days later we almost let someone convince us he needed to die. Almost is my new favorite word. And hey, Dorothy nailed it when she was trying to get the hell out of Oz…there truly is no place like home.

Party on, Boog. Party on.

 

Two Hundred Thirty Two.

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Oh…hey there! Yeah, it’s been awhile. Sorry about that. It’s not you, it’s definitely me.

Yes, 2017 slipped by with barely a word here from me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t have stuff to say. I can always find SOMETHING to say. It’s just that somehow, I didn’t find much time to put everything I had to say down in written form. That may not seem like much of an excuse…you should make time for your passion. You should make time to do the one thing that always centers you and brings you joy.

And yet, time escaped me. When was my last post? June-something? And then I blinked and it was New Year’s Eve. There may have been time travel involved. Yikes!

So here we are.  From June-something to a week into 2018. Seems like a good time to hop back in the old saddle, yes?

Perhaps I have some explaining to do. The two precious faces in the photo above are a good part of the reason for my departure from regular blogging. Those two faces have been through a lot…before coming to our farm, and since. Granted, the “since” part has been positive for them, though it has been a bit tricky convincing them of that at times.

Pictured are Margo and Mabel, two of the twenty-two Dalmatians our little local Dalmatian rescue took in this year.  Of those 22, 18 were rescued from puppy mill auctions. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a brief glimpse.

Puppy mills are commercial facilities where breeding dogs are kept in pens and bred as often as possible to crank out as many puppies as possible. The conditions are generally poor and the quality of life for the breeding dogs is, in my opinion (and the opinion of any rational person), miserable.

Dogs are social animals who need companionship, mental stimulation, and physical exercise. They are denied all of the above in a puppy mill.

The auctions are where the puppy mill operators gather to sell off “stock” they no longer want, and to purchase new stock. It’s a heartbreaking scene for anyone who cares about dogs. They are bought and sold just as you would buy furniture at a yard sale. The highest bidder gets the dog. It doesn’t matter where they are heading or what kind of life will be provided. It’s just about buying and selling. No questions asked.

The puppies produced in puppy mills are generally sold to brokers who in turn sell them to pet stores across the nation. Sometimes, however, entire litters of puppies are taken to auction. In my breed of choice, Dalmatians, that happened a few times this year.

As rescuers, it is a slippery slope to “rescue” dogs from puppy mill auctions because it means you have to basically go in and bid to buy them. So yes, you are paying money to the puppy mill operator for the right to rescue his or her dogs.

I’ve had people argue that rescues buying dogs at auction only lines the pockets of the unscrupulous breeders. My answer to that is simple. The dogs are going to sell on the specified day, at the specified time. Whether they are purchased by people with their best interest at heart, or purchased by another breeder who will plunge them straight back into another breeding facility is irrelevant. The dogs WILL sell. The puppy mill operator will go home with money in his pocket one way or another. We might as well get as many out of the system as we can afford.

I’ve also had many a person insist that we should reason with these “breeders,” try to work something  out before the auction to allow release of the dogs to rescue. Well, that would require the puppy mill operator to care about the dogs. And, in most cases, they don’t. They care about how much money the dogs will bring. It’s their business…their livelihood. Our type of reason has no place in their world.

If you find this mindset appalling, you are my people.

I could go on, and on, and on, but the underbelly of the dog breeding industry is not the point of this article. My last word on the topic is this…if you, as I do, enjoy sharing your life with a purebred dog, turn to a breed rescue or, please, please research your breeders carefully. There are WONDERFUL, caring, educated breeders out there who work so hard  to ensure the ongoing health and welfare of purebred dogs. Don’t be fooled by imposters. Oh, I could write an entire series on the topic and maybe this year I will.  That whole back in the saddle thing.

But I digress. Back to my little subjects in the photo. Margo and Mabel have now been living with us for 232 days. When they came to us with their littermates, Mackenzie and Molly, the sisters did not see humans as a good thing. Their theory was very Animal Farm-esque, four legs good, two legs bad.

What it boils down to is this, for the first 10 months of their young lives, they lived in a puppy mill kennel. They were going to be used as breeders. They missed all key socialization periods. Until May 20th last year, their world was living in a pen together. When the two-legger showed up, you moved away. The two-legger might spray water to wash your urine and feces away. The two-legger might yell or bang metal pans on the fence to get you to move back from the gate so food and water could be set inside.

And that was it. There was no petting. No playing. No soft words as silky ears were rubbed. And so it was…four legs good, two legs bad. Actually, two legs were downright scary.

But then May 20th arrived, and for whatever reason, the person who owned the four sisters decided it was time for them to go. Swapping out for a smaller breed that required less room and less food? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, the four girls were ripped from the only world they knew and tossed in the middle of a busy, dog and human-filled auction house.

Terrifying for them, but truly the best day of their lives because a really nice guy named  Jim was there for them. His bid was the winning bid. He was the one to load the girls into crates in his car to bring them home.

Of course no one told them it was a good day.

I wrote about them previously…back in June (you can read it here!). Contact was not welcome, though they never growled or snapped in fear. The girls were shut down and trembled if we just looked at them. Exciting progress came in the form of peanut butter licked from the very tips of my extended fingers.

Molly, the most willing/least traumatized of the four, left early on with Tom, a very kind man with two happy Dalmatians already living the good life in his home. We all agreed it was in Molly’s best interest to separate her from her siblings and get her into a new routine. We were right. Molly is making great progress with Tom. He is a saint.

The work with the other three continued when something really special happened.  Somewhere along the way, the girls fell in love, head over heels, with another of our foster dogs–a wolfdog named Kenai. Though the girls played, romped, and learned from all of our dogs, I credit Kenai with their most profound breakthrough.

Black and white 1Kenai was the star football player in the eyes of his adoring spotted cheerleaders. Kenai was the patient big brother. He let the girls crawl all over him. He ran and played with them. He rested in the shade with them. He also helped show them that two legs weren’t always bad.

Most importantly, he taught them how to stop worrying so much and to kick up their heels and have some fun.

Because Kenai adored me and Jim, the shy girls started trusting a bit. A tiny bit.

Now we can actually pet them. There are still dog-imposed boundaries that need to be gently broken (you may pet us out in the big yard where escape is easy if necessary, you may also pet us through the fence of our run, but we are still not sure about much contact inside the house where escape is not guaranteed), but still, each day we see baby steps.

Where we once saw shiny, glazed, panic-filled eyes, we now see recognition, curiosity, and a tiny hint of blossoming trust. Where there were once shivering limbs, we are now greeted with wagging tails.

IMG_7312 finalThings even progressed to a point where Mackenzie was able to move on as well. Dear Tom came back for another. He thought Molly would enjoy having one of her sisters join her and Mac was the second-most willing of the group. Though she still has a long way to go in the socialization department, I know she’s in excellent hands. Tom is kind, patient and completely devoted to his dogs. Mac is going to be fine…well…once she realizes that Tom doesn’t have to move to the opposite end of the house for her to feel safe coming inside from the yard.

Baby steps. She’ll get there.

IMG_7606Kenai has now placed in a loving permanent home, but never fear. The sisters were more than happy to transfer their crushes to our resident big guy wolfdog. Uncle Kainan has stepped in and the lessons continue.

I don’t know how long it will take for these two girls to trust enough to move on to homes of their own. Or maybe I should say I don’t know how long it will take to find homes for them that have just the right ingredients for success. But I do know it will happen. It happened years ago for two puppy mill survivors named Jack and Jill (Thank you Syl and Jim!). I believe it took about 425 days for them to begin to really trust.

Margo and Mabel will get there in their own time. We just take it one day at a time, always looking forward to the day when two legs can be seen as a really good thing. But right now, we’re just looking ahead to day 233.

We think it will be a really great day.

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Never Count a Good Chicken Out.

She's back

It is highly possible that my hen has access to the Internet. Wait. It’s got to be the Internest. (Cracked myself up right there!)

The very day after I shared a post voicing concern that my injured hen, Eggatha Christie, would not recover enough use of her leg to be able to rejoin our little flock of chickens (didn’t read it? It’s here), I walked into the garage/chicken hospital to find her perched rather defiantly on the edge of her pen. And there was an obvious “I know what you’ve been saying about me” gleam in her beady little eye.

This is something akin to a patient pulling his own IV catheter and waltzing out of the hospital ward with his butt hanging out of those open-in-the-back gowns they force you to wear. My hen’s balancing act should not have been possible with her injured ligament. I really didn’t think she could possibly perch on anything let alone that narrow strip of metal fencing.

But there she was. Her butt (sans gown) hanging on my side of the pen  sending a definite poultry kiss-my-tail-feathers message.

“Ok Eggatha,” I thought, “I’m game if you are. Let’s see how this works out.”

I took my ginger hen back out to the community coop late in that evening. Chickens, you see, become helpless little zombies at night. Not the Walking Dead type of zombie that stumbles after anything warm-blooded, but rather the nearly comatose type of zombie that just stares blindly ahead. Dark + chickens = helpless. This was the opportune time to slip my hen back into the coop after her month-long convelescense. They would all awake the next morning and hopefully believe she had been there all along.

I got up early to go out to check on the situation. My greatest fear was that the other chickens might still see Eggatha as a weak link. They might reject her or, worse, attack her. Chickens can be zombies…and they can be bullies. Complex little critters.

What I found was a coop full of relaxed chickens ready to come out to run around the yard chasing bugs.

Ok. She’s back in the club.

Fear number three was that she would not be able to run if she needed to escape a predator. Her left leg had a pronounced limp and speed might not be a possibility for Eggatha. So I waited, watched, and then went out to call the girls and their rooster to me (yes, they DO come when they are called!).

All of the chickens held their wings out to their sides and came scurrying toward me in funny, waddling little sprints. They run like tiny dinosaurs and they can really move when they want to.

Cluck Norris lead the pack followed by Henelope Cruise, Donna Chicken A La King, and lo and behold, Eggatha Christie.

Eggatha can’t run like she used to, but that feisty little redhead has adapted and she can most certainly keep up with the “herd.”

I can best describe her new gait by harkening back to my elementary school days when all of the horse-crazy little girls would gather on the playground to pretend we were riding…or that we actually were…horses.

Do you remember doing that? Anybody else? You would hold your arms curled up to your chest and you would kind of skip along, one leg leading the other in a mock, rocking canter.

And THIS is how Eggatha has regained her place in the coop with the rest of the flock. The determined little hen, who is one heck of a survivor, has adapted. Maybe she doesn’t get around quite like the other chickens, but she is out there living her life, earning style points, perhaps starting a new chicken trend.

Life lessons in the chicken coop. Way to prove me wrong Eggatha.

Now…where the heck do you store that teeny tiny laptop?

Asking for Directions

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Eggatha Christie is not well.

No, not Agatha. With all due respect, Agatha Christie is several steps beyond “not well.” I believe she passed away in 1976.

Her somewhat namesake, Eggatha, however, is quite alive, but struggling. She has an injured leg and in the chicken world, that’s a very bad thing.

While chickens generally seem all innocuous and flock-devoted, let one of them get a tiny bit sick or suffer the tiniest of injuries and the whole dang flock will turn against them. I guess it’s that weakest link thing. Who knows.

All I do know is that just about five weeks ago, Eggatha did not raise her wing and say “here” during roll call as I was tucking everyone into the safety of our coop for the night. Our chickens get to free-range around our yard and barn during the day, and that covers a good bit of territory, so chicken hide-n-seek can be a challenging game. Chickens can be pretty good at the hide part of the game.

Eggatha’s truancy was  more than a bit concerning. My chickens come when called pretty well, actually really well. (DOGS…you might want to take note here. The CHICKENS come when they are called. They don’t pretend they can’t hear me to enjoy five more minutes of bird chasing.) Finally, as I continued to call for Eggatha, I did get a little clucking response from the direction of the barn.

There I found my ginger-colored girl S L O W L Y making her way toward me. I immediately feared that something had attacked her–the undeniable risk of allowing hens their freedom. Upon quick examination, I could find no visible injury, but her right leg was basically useless.

I carried her carefully to the coop and tucked her in with her chicken family for the night. I was sure they would rally around her, pull the literal or metaphorical thorn from her foot, and help her return to her normal sassy, strutting self by morning.

The next morning, what I found instead was dear Eggatha cringing in the corner of the coop pen while some of the other chickens, Cluck Norris, Henelope Cruz, and Donna Chicken a la King, were darting in and pecking at her. So much for feathered family values.

I rushed to the hen’s defense sending her traitorous feathered friends scurrying away in a flurry of flaps and squawks. After checking her over and finding that she was no worse for the wear physically, I moved a distressed Eggatha into one of our large dog crates with comfy bedding, and food and water in easy reach. But what to do next? Do they make tiny chicken crutches?

EggathaSo here’s the deal. It’s a chicken. I probably paid two bucks for her as a hatchling. She does not cuddle on the couch with me. She does not hop in the car with tail feathers wagging in anticipation of a grand adventure. She scratches around the yard, poops an astonishing amount, eats non-stop, and gives us eggs (bonus prize…the pet that feeds you breakfast and helps you make cakes!).

If this were a working farm, incapacitated Eggatha might truly become the pet that feeds us, if you know what I mean. And while I’m not a vegetarian, I would NEVER, NEVER…well, you know.

My next course of action was to call one of my trusted veterinarians who, I discovered, holds a master’s degree in  poultry science.

And so I whisked my two dollar hen off to the veterinary hospital where she then sat in a hospital cage adjacent to a variety of dogs, cats, and one young pig, awaiting her turn to be examined by the specialist.

Did you know that chickens have a ligament in their leg that can slip out of place and render that leg pretty much useless? I did not know that either, but I sure do now.

So Eggatha got some x-rays (you could see a soon-to-be-layed egg on the films…hysterical for some reason), had an exam, had a little acupuncture, got a fancy bandage on the upper part of her leg just above that backwards knee. Then she was discharged with strict instructions for rest and daily supplements to hopefully help her ligament get back in line and back to work.

Basically, my hen was on bed rest for 30 days.

The bandage helped support her weakened leg and she did start walking better almost immediately.  I grew hopeful that we would soon return Ms. Christie to the coop, to her normal do-as-you-please life of leisure.

After 30 days and some change had passed, we removed the bandage to see if Eggatha’s leg was once again a working drumstick.

But as she took a first tentative step, my heart fell. Her leg had not healed, and, in fact, without the bandage offering support, her limp was very pronounced.

So what now?

At the same time I was pondering Eggatha’s future, I read an article written by a friend. As fate would have it, this was the last article he would write…a small anecdote capping off a lifetime of articles, columns, books, screenplays, and several books that went on to become movies.

The author, Jay Cronley, was a Tulsa treasure. Long known for his humorous, to-the-point writing style, his recent contributions to a local pet magazine were quick, fun reads detailing the author’s life with and love for his dogs. Just days after he turned in this article, he quite suddenly and unexpectedly left this world.

When the new magazine came out, I flipped to the back column with a bit of a lump in my throat. It’s still so hard to believe Jay is gone. The article, a story about one of Jay’s beloved springer spaniels and the lengths he went to in an effort to save the dog from crippling hip dysplasia, was yet another colorfully told gem of a read.

And then I got to the last paragraph. Did Jay write this just for me? It is perhaps my favorite paragraph he has ever written. It was–and is–the best thing I could have read…the best gift Jay could have left for me and certainly for Eggatha.

“If you’re a real dog person, if the dog is a member of your family, you don’t ask how far it is to the hospital where they might save your pooch, or how much; you simply ask directions.”

Ok. Yeah, he was writing about a beloved dog. The cuddle-on-the-couch variety of animal companion. But who is to say where the line is drawn?

I raised Eggatha from a chick just days out of the shell. I have watched over her, fed and watered her. I have sat watching beautiful sunsets with her perched on my knee. I have tucked her in safely at night. Is she any less deserving of special care than our aging dog Virgil? Our blind mare GoGo?

In truth, it is up to each person to draw “the line,” to decide what is possible and what is best for the animals in their care. A chicken farmer would not likely have a special condo set up in his garage for one handicapped hen. Or maybe he would. It’s all in how each individual looks at things.

For me, well, Eggatha is not in pain and she does not seem to be unhappy. She eats, she still scratches around, she still poops an astonishing amount, she still gifts us with a daily egg, and her chicken mafia family has visitation through the fence. She seems content with that.

I think I’ll look for a smaller, chicken coop and yard that can sit alongside the main coop. It will serve as a private condo where Eggatha can live on safely for as long as she likes.

Was there ever any question? Really, I just needed directions to the nearest farm store. (Thanks Jay!)

 

It Was A Dark and Stormy Night…

jim-storm

Photo by Jim Thomason

It was a dark and stormy night. The bank of clouds that had been building ominously on the west horizon all day had finally spilled across my landscape, churning and flashing with anger. There was no hint of a twinkling star, no sign of even one moonbeam to light the way home.

Is there even a moon tonight? I wondered as I switched the headlights back and forth from high to low beam finding no setting that cut through the swirling foggy mist. Full moon? Crescent moon? I couldn’t even remember. But it didn’t matter. Not tonight. The impending storm owned this night and all I wanted to do was win the race with it to my farm.

The first crack of lightening zigzagged its way across the sky casting an eerie glow just as I pulled through the gate to make my way down the long drive. The dogs were going to be bonkers by the time I finally got inside the house to shoo them outside for a quick potty break. Hopefully we could beat the rain that the impatient cloud bank was soon to release and avoid a dozen muddy paws.

All I wanted was to get inside, change into my comfy pajamas and house shoes, start a pot of chili on the stove, and enjoy the drama of the storm from the safety of my living room couch. But no. That’s not how life on a farm works. Even when you’re completely spent from a long day at work, you have to come home to your other job. The animals don’t understand “I’m taking a day off…take care of yourselves.”

Thankfully, the horses would have already been fed earlier in the day. I’d just make a quick run to the barn to be sure our old girl, GoGo, was safely inside so she wouldn’t get drenched in the storm. Then, I’d need to tuck the chickens in their coop for the night. I could surely get all of this accomplished before things got too bad. Surely.

As I put the Jeep into park another huge flash of lightening was immediately followed by a window-rattling roar of thunder that exploded all around me. Great. The storm was sitting right on top of me. Not a minute to spare. I cracked the car door open just a bit. The wind, seeming to sense my arrival, started swirling first one direction and then another as the cold front descended, promising a strong “weather event,” as our forecasters are so fond of calling it.

Taking a deep breath, I darted out of the Jeep and ran for the barn, grateful that I had on my Nikes. I’m no wimp about a little rain, but lightening really unnerves me. I’m not in favor of potentially being a human lightening rod. And right now, that barn sure seemed a lot farther away than it had earlier in the day.

Racing into the shelter, I was greeted by several startled snorts as our herd of horses and donkeys paced around nervously.

“I hear you guys…I’m not happy about this storm either.”

But everyone, including our matron mare GoGo, was safe and inside. The water trough was full. There was plenty of hay in the feeders.

One step closer to those jammies and chili!

Another deep breath and I was off to check on the chickens. No reprieve from the weather this time. The lightening was intensifying and the rain was teasing me with giant random drops hurling down to splat on the top of my head, and trickle down the back of my neck.

The coop was situated near a small grove of trees by our pond. The trees offered the chickens shelter from the hot summer sun and a little camouflage from soaring hawks overhead. Normally, I loved that little grove of trees, but tonight, the gnarled branches appeared to be reaching out to grab me and every little gust of wind crackled through the underbrush like a pack of predators in wait for a tasty meal.

Oh me and my imagination. Sometimes my best friend, but tonight, my worst enemy. Stop it, I ordered myself. Just focus on the chickens. You do this every single night. Focus.

So I peered into the coop and counted heads. As usual, I was one hen short. “Henelope?” I called out as I squinted in the darkness hoping to quickly see where my rogue hen had decided to roost this time. After just a moment, that seemed like an hour, I saw her dark form perched on the far edge of the little pen attached to the coop. Henelope gave a startled little squawk as one of the enormous raindrops beaned her right on the top of her head.

“You crazy chicken!” I said as I scooped her up and tucked her quickly inside the coop. “It appears neither of us has the sense to come in from the rain.” I secured the door on the coop and slid all of the little air vents shut so the chickens could ride out the storm snug and dry.

Another huge clap of thunder had me jumping. Just then there was an unmistakable rustle in the brush just behind me. I laughed nervously to myself. Stop being so silly, I admonished myself. You’re fine. You love storms. Well, you love them from INSIDE the house. Now, stop standing here looking around like the tragic figure in the horror movie who can’t seem to find any of her friends. Get inside to that chili!

Taking a deep breath, and cursing the lightening that still threatened to send silvery fingers down to turn my straight hair into fried curls, I turn and started toward the house, with my shoulders hunched and my head down as the rain intensified, immediately soaking my sweatshirt.

What was that sound? It almost sounded like something growling from the corner of the house. No. Nope. Stop it. Just get inside. You are doing this to yourself. Just go.

Cursing myself for not having the foresight to leave some lights on when I left the house that morning, I made my way gingerly through the inky night toward the front porch, adjusting my course with each flash of lightening.

Suddenly every hair on my neck and arms stood straight up in that moment of premonition. Then he was on me, grabbing me around my waist and clamping a hand across my mouth just as a piercing scream escaped that no one beyond my pack of frustrated dogs could hear.

I struggled, I kicked, I heard…I heard…

Laughter.

Dammit Jim.

Revenge will be sweet.

 

This story was inspired by a little “creativity prompt” that was posted in my online creative group, The Crazy Ones. It was also inspired by the thousands of times I’ve let my imagination get the best of me. And most of all, it was inspired by Jim…who popped out from dark shadows to scare me SO many times that I almost don’t react any longer. Almost. While this story is fiction…well, lets just say there’s a lot of truth in fiction. Thanks for keeping things interesting, Jim. 🙂

A Sheep by Any Other Name

meeting-bobI stepped outside to breathe in the fresh cool air of an Oklahoma Indian summer evening possibly, maybe, kind of surrendering to fall weather. The sky held a hint of  blush still highlighting the horizon before the darkness settled in. It was peaceful. And it was quiet. Very, very quiet.

Too damn quiet.

What was missing was the serenade of our old ram. Every evening prior to this for the last decade, if you stepped outside within sight of the pasture just to the south of the barn, you would be treated to a hopeful…no, that’s not the word…a demanding, somewhat plaintive one-note song.

Baaaaaaaaaaahb. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahb. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahb.

Ok, when you attempt to say that, be sure to make the “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah” part sound as if you are gargling when you say it. Then you’ll nail it.

This cry was so distinctive that said troubadour earned his name because of it.

Bob.

Ok, I would have typed it the way it was really spelled, but in print, well, you would have ended up saying “boob” in a warbling voice and…no. Nope. Wrong on so many levels.

But back to Bob.

On this evening, Bob did not call to me. Bob was not with us any longer. It’s simple really, Bob got old and needed to move on to the big pasture in the sky.

bob-baby

Baby Bob

I remember when Bob first joined the Tails You Win Farm family. He came to us via a friend who found a stray little lamb. Yes, a stray baby lamb. It was right around Easter time in the spring. Perhaps Bob was an overzealous parent’s version of gifting the kids a bunny (please don’t do this) or a baby chick (even more of a don’t do this!). Or perhaps poor little Bob just strayed from the safety of his flock and apparently met up with a not-so-sheep-friendly dog or coyote. Bob had some wounds, a sore, swollen leg, and he was scared.

Fortunately for Bob, he found a very sheep-friendly human and she immediately starting doing her best to care for him. Ok, the one thing she did wrong? She actually named him Lambykins. Yeah. No.

She also immediately started looking for a safe haven for Lambykins-soon-to-be-Bob.

So yadda, yadda, yadda (do I REALLY have to explain that Jim and I jumped at the chance to have a baby lamb join our four-legged family?) and tiny, scared Bob-no-longer-Lambykins was secure in our horse trailer and headed to the farm. At the time, we had a llama that would be the perfect woolly companion and protector for our dear little lamb.

Now, when I say “lamb” you likely picture a precious, fluffy, white little creature with big brown eyes and an undeniably innocent, sweet nature. That’s what I pictured too.

But Bob was different. He was a black sheep. And when I say black sheep, I mean it in every sense of the term. I think Bob could have been considered cute and sweet for maybe one month of the 120 months that he shared our home. After that, especially after shearing time, he looked somewhat like a prehistoric alien and we had to start using adjectives like ornery, stubborn, thick, and not-the-sharpest-crayon-in-the-box to describe him.

bob-and-scoutBob got rather big, rather quickly. And Bob was pushy. Especially at mealtime.He wanted his supper and the supper of every single animal in the barnyard. So, at feeding time, Bob morphed into a black, fuzzy missile charging from feeder to feeder, pushing even the biggest of our horses off their grain so he could nibblenibblenibble it up at an alarming rate. The horses would stamp, snort, bite and kick in protest, but Bob in his woolen suit of armor was seemingly oblivious.

I recall Jim and I commenting to each other on more than one occasion, “This can’t be good for him.” You see, sheep really aren’t supposed to eat horse food. Sheep are supposed to eat sheep food.

So we tried to sequester Bob at mealtime. We tried to convince him to eat his special sheep food. He, in turn, discovered how very hard the top of his head was and tried to butt us into the next county.

Oh. Hell. No.

Picture Nancy, with a feed bucket swinging like a medieval flail, yelling and chasing after Bob (perhaps with a slight limp after having Bob’s helmet head meet squarely with my hip joint) while threatening all means of bodily harm if he EVER did that again. For the record, the threats were empty, Bob evaded me with great ease, and we never cured him of his exceedingly poor mealtime manners.

Oh sure, we could have put him in a separate pasture. And we tried that. We put Bob in Jerry Swinefeld the hog’s pasture (nobody, not even Bob dare steal food from Jerry!). The result? Well, where there is a will, there is a way, and where there is a way, there is a Bob. If Bob wanted to get out of a pasture, he got out. Add to that the fact that when Bob moved into Jerry’s domain, Jerry was not amused and moved right out. Yes, 700 pound hogs CAN somehow crawl under a pasture fence. Who knew?

Jerry vacated his comfy pig pasture and took up residence in our front yard and in the shade of the trees alongside the pond.

You know. Loose. Able to amble over to see what was going on at the neighbor’s house.

Now we had a large ram and a really large hog on the lam.

Back to plan A. Good luck horses. Duke it out with him. We surrender.

Then there was the time that we presented Bob with his first round bale of hay. If you are not familiar with “farm stuff,” a round bale is a large – generally five feet in diameter and four feet wide – roll of hay. You set it out to feed groups of animals during the fall and winter. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet for pasture dwellers.

Jim carried the heavy bale into the pasture via our trusty blue ford tractor and set it down about 20 feet from Bob. Bob stood staring at this new feature to his pasture and instead of saying “hooray, lunch!” Bob screamed “INTRUDER!” as he reared up, tucked his chin to his chest, and charged head-first into the side of the 900-ish pound bale.

WHAM.

Bob rebounded off the bale and landed firmly on his backside. And you know what happened next? He repeated the charge. He landed on his ass-end again. And then he repeated this feat no fewer than 10 times.

Oh Bob. It’s food, not foe. Bless. Your. Heart.

img_5683

Young Bob and our mini horse, Trigger

All in all, I think we gave Bob a pretty good life. He had plenty of room to roam. He had horses who tolerated him, he had donkeys and one fine mule who protected him from the coyotes (because yes, there was that one time the coyotes tried to lure Bob away to certain demise and Ferris Muler saved the day).

Bob always had fresh water to drink. He always had shade. He had several bad haircuts to help him stay cooler (and no, we never did master the art of keeping his wool clean or finding ways to spin it into woven tributes to his life here). He had shelter in bad weather and cool breezes on beautiful days.

And he seemed happy. He liked to have that tough spot on the top of his head scratched. He liked carrots and apples. And when he surveyed me with his funny, alien-looking sheep eyes, I think I saw a flicker of affection from time to time. Maybe ours was a bit of a love-hate relationship, but love won out. I admit it. I think Bob would admit it too.

bob-and-nanBob was our first sheep. Bob was most definitely our last sheep. But hey, Bob, I’m sure glad YOU got to be our one and only. You were an experience from start to finish.

Now get out there and enjoy stealing from all of the other animals’ feeders in sheep heaven, you big woolly bully. We’ll miss you. We’ll miss hearing your name.

Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahb!

 

Sleep-In Sunday. Who Needs It?

sleep Kaine 2

I’ll admit it. I was a tiny bit giddy when I tucked myself into bed last night. It was Saturday night and I had NOTHING to do Sunday morning. Nothing. Nada. Nil.

And so I drifted off to sleep with visions of a lazy morning dancing in my head. I would sleep in. Not the 7:00 am kind of sleep-in. Not even the 7:30 kind of sleep-in. I was going for the gold. I was shooting for 8:00 am sleep-in glory.

That rarely gets to happen.

It still rarely gets to happen.

Several factors conspired against my lazy, stay-in-bed Sunday. If you know me at all, you might think that some of those factors were the members of my four-legged family. You would be right, but in their defense, it was the two-legged inhabitants of the farm who really stirred the pot.

“Stirred the pot” may be an unfortunate phrase choice, because the two-legged creatures I am referring to are our little flock of chickens who decided that a rainy, gray, perfect-for-sleeping morning was, instead, the perfect morning to crow repeatedly (that would be Cluck Norris testing his new-found skills as a young rooster), and run hither and yon across the yard. In front of the windows. The bedroom windows. Where the dogs WERE sleeping with me. Until they were not.

windowBarking, pawing, and whining incessantly at the windows became the new order of the day. I tried desperately to press my eyelids tightly shut and pull the blankets over my head in an effort to block the dogs, who were ping-ponging across the bed as they vaulted to the windows and back to me in a HEY-DID-YOU-KNOW-WE-HAVE-CHICKENS frenzy.

Yeah. I know. Chickens.

And then the lead two-legger came in to crash my slumber party once and for all. He released THE hound. Yep, I believe his words were, “If you’re not going to come see him, he’s going to come see you.”

With that, approximately 115 pounds of soggy Kainan, our resident wolfdog, landed squarely on my abdomen.

Chicks in yardOh, and did I tell you that the aforementioned human two-legger also happened to be the one who let the chickens out of their coop at 6 am? On sleep-in Sunday? On a cloudy, rainy, perfect-for-snoozing day? Yeah, I’m not pointing any fingers, but that’s what happened and his name rhymes with hymn. (That reference is going to make all kinds of sense here in a minute and you’re going to look back and you’ll surely think I’m quite clever…)

But the sound that REALLY got me out of my fog and into the day had nothing to do with rogue chickens or bouncing dogs. It was the pitiful, complaining, wail that echoed from the garage, down the hall, through the living room and straight into my pillow-muffled ear canals.

PUPPIES!

Oh yes! My eyes suddenly popped wide open. It was my first morning to wake up to our two tiny spotted charges. Our new little foster babies.

In the garage, you say? Yes. I know. It goes against everything that is Nancy and Jim (hey, that rhymes with hymn…). Our dogs and our foster dogs are in the house. Everywhere in the house. They own the place.

But these tiny babies are special. They are two of the survivors from a litter of Dalmatian puppies that came down with the dreaded parvovirus (parvo).

In a nutshell, parvo is a highly contagious virus that attacks a dog’s intestines and destroys the lining that allows them to absorb nutrients and fluids. While there is prevention for parvo – all puppies and dogs should be vaccinated for it – there is no cure for it once a dog or puppy has contracted it. So the only course of treatment is to provide supportive care while the virus runs its course and hope like heck the puppy can rally. It is an aggressive disease and can be deadly.

We learned all too well about the deadly part this week.

Jim and I, along with our good friend Lawanna, run the Dalmatian Assistance League, Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to the welfare of our beloved Dalmatian dogs. We educate the public about our favorite breed of dog. We rescue homeless Dalmatians. We foster them. We provide care for them. We find them wonderful new homes. And we love them. Each and every one that passes through our lives.

About a week ago, while on a trip to California for my cousin’s wedding (BEAUTIFUL!), I received word about a litter of 10 Dalmatian puppies that had contracted parvo. One puppy had already died, and other puppies in the litter were starting to fall like a line of teetering dominoes. The litter owners, who had not really planned to breed their dogs, but ooops happened, were overwhelmed and out of resources. Treating one case of parvo can be costly and is a 24/7 proposition. Treating an entire litter was devastating.

Long story short…with lots of texts and phone calls, Jim and I started arranging assistance for the puppies, hoping that a little help would go a long way. Sometimes you can nip parvo in the bud. Sometimes you can’t.

This was one of those “you can’t” times.

Pink 2Once back in town, I met the puppies for the first time at a veterinary hospital that was willing to work with our rescue group to try to save some lives. Three puppies had already left for new homes (and were receiving care from their new owners), one, despite supportive care from the litter owner, had already passed away. We were left with a plastic tub full of six puppies, five of which were showing symptoms.

I won’t give all the details, but of the six puppies, five required hospitalization through the course of the week and in the end, we lost three of them. Overall in the litter, five died, five survived.

It was heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. It was a yo-yoing, emotional, glass half full, glass half empty kind of week. At times, especially in the mornings when I awaited my daily update from the veterinarian, it felt like a cracked glass draining fast kind of week as I received news of loss despite their very best efforts.

But then there was the morning when the remaining puppies made it through the night. That was followed by the call when I could actually hear the puppies complaining loudly as they vied for attention in the background. Then there was the news that the two puppies remaining at the vet were drinking water on their own and holding it down. Soon came the news that they were finally hungry…in fact, hAngry. Finally, we had good, glorious, turning-the-corner kind of news.

These kids were ready to be sprung from the vet and Jim and I were ready to welcome them to our home to recover. Oh…wait. We were anything BUT ready.

Even though they were doing better, the puppies would still be shedding the virus and though our adult dogs would not be affected, we could not let our home environment become contaminated. Parvo can live in your yard for years. It is one stubborn little bastard.

So Saturday morning erupted in a flurry of preparation so we would have a comfortable quarantine space for our new adorable charges. Though parvo is spread through contact, it is not airborne, we still needed to have a good plan and set-up for keeping the puppies isolated.

Hymn, um, I mean Jim, cleared a space in our do-you-really-use-all-of-these-tools garage (and he does. I guess he really does) while I ran out to gather/buy supplies. Supplies included a tarp for the floor, rubber gloves and gowns to wear when handling the pups, blankets, a crate, a puppy pen, oh, and a portable air conditioner. Oklahoma is hot, hot, hot. Recovering puppies needed to be comfortable.

We got everything set up in record time. I went to the puppy hospital, met with the wonderful Dr. Sellers, got all of my instructions, and then loaded a little crate into my Jeep, two sweet, curious faces peering out of it.

13568795_1372346229461358_3022580120059058848_oThe pups settled into their new recovery space nicely. They both immediately lapped up a big drink of water (yay…dehydration is one of the big killers with parvo) and then discovered the pile of new toys we had waiting for them. It was a great feeling to see two puppies who had just a day ago been so ill they could barely raise their heads, pounce on squeaky toys and settle in to gnaw on puppy chew bones.

And so these spotted charmers were the determined little alarm clocks that finally broke through my Sunday slumber fog. They were my reason to bolt out of bed and start my day just a wee bit earlier than I had planned. And I didn’t mind. Not one bit.

It was perfect.

13592266_1372345986128049_2484418169794870042_nGowned and gloved, I sat holding each puppy, thankful for a great veterinarian, thankful for a litter owner who did not give up, thankful for that Jim guy who would never turn his back on a puppy in need.

In our set-up, we had added an old radio in the garage to keep the puppies company. On this Sunday morning before the 4th of July, one of the few stations we could find that would actually tune in was featuring the “Big Country Sunday Morning Gospel Show.”

The old-time hymns (see that…hymn, rhymed with Jim…I brought it full circle!) brought a grin to my face as I sang along to my little patients. Patsy Cline and I crooned “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” I harmonized with the Statler Brothers through “Amazing Grace,” followed by a rousing rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that reverberated through the garage as two happy, returning-to-healthy puppies squirmed in an enthusiastic attempt to lick my nose.

You know what? Sleep-in Sunday can happily be damned. My cracked glass is now full and runneth right over. I have puppies to hug.

 

There is a fund raiser underway to help cover our mounting expenses for the puppies. If you would like to contribute to the puppies’ care fund, you can find information here: gofundme.com/dalmatianrescue. Donations in any amount are greatly appreciated. All funds go directly to the Dalmatian Assistance League, Inc.,  a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Good thoughts, prayers, and words of encouragement are equally valued. We thank you!

 

 

Terrible, Terrible Twos

the chaseI can’t say they didn’t warn us. They did.

“You won’t really know what you’ve got until he turns two.”

Those simple words from our wonderful friends at Freedom’s Song Wolf Rescue have stuck with me for the last 18 months. Now they’re proving a bit prophetic.

And what they meant was, with wolfdogs, you really don’t know whether they will think more like a wolf, or more like a dog until they mature. For some, I guess, the wolf side of the brain can prove to be a bit of a challenge. It’s possible we’re finding that out.

I  can’t say that I didn’t see it…and feel it…coming. Over the past several months I have seen a shift in our wolfdog Kainan’s attitude from time to time. It was subtle at first. You had to pay attention. And it was easy to write it off as just a little incident.

Since joining our family as an adolescent wolfdog in August of 2014, Kainan been remarkably easy-going. Though he dwarfs all of our other dogs – now easily outweighing the largest by about 40 pounds – he has been an affable boy, romping and playing like a gentle giant with dogs half his size or smaller. His current most devoted playmate tips the scales at a mere 38 pounds.

He also defers to our 10-year-old, “top dog” Dalmatian, Howie. He bows down to Howie on a daily basis, groveling at his feet and licking under his chin in absolute submission to the older dog. Howie is very large and in charge in Kainan’s eyes. This behavior is not because Howie is an “alpha dog” who has forcibly rolled Kainan over and asserted his dominance. That theory is tired and outdated. Kainan’s behavior toward Howie is healthy, voluntary submissive behavior and it’s a good thing.

But in recent months I have noticed it, I’ve seen a little shift. Dogs that were once included in Kainan’s merry little circle of playmates, are now excluded. If you know the subtleties of dog to dog communication, you can see the change in attitude a mile away.

Kain and Bernie

“Good play” with Bernie

I think I first noticed it with Bernie, our pit-mix boy. Bernie was one of Kainan’s initial best buddies. They would romp and play like big, goofy puppies. Until one day I saw it.

I looked outside and saw Bernie sitting in the very back corner of the yard, sideways to the house. His body was curved, his back rounded, his head dropped low, his ears pinned back in a worried expression. I could see he was licking his lips and glancing sideways toward the house and then looking quickly away. These are all signs of stress, all signals to another dog that he is no threat, that he is not challenging, and he wants no trouble.

Having never seen Bernie display this behavior, I quickly looked to see what was causing his concern. There, standing tensed and focused between Bernie and the path that leads to the dog door, was Kainan. His ears were pricked sharply forward. His head was dropped level with his back. His body was tensed and in a partial crouch as if ready to spring. His eyes held a hard focus on the worried dog across the yard.

I immediately went out into the yard and called Kainan to me. He did not respond quickly or very willingly. I had to go to him. His focus was intense, but just by breaking the moment, the spell, I was enough distraction to allow Bernie to run to me and then into the house.

What the heck had I just witnessed?

Time to pay closer attention. We had dropped our guard. We had been lulled into a false sense of security by silly, adolescent Kainan. Now mature Kainan had moved in and it was time to take notice.

Kill the wolfdog

“Kill” the wolfdog.

For a bit, I saw nothing further. He was Mr. Frolic. He had a little pack of girls comprised of three Dalmatians, one husky/malamute, and one mixed breed dog who raced and wrestled with him nonstop. Even with his huge size advantage, he was gentle with his girls. In fact, more often than not, he chose to be the prey, allowing them to chase him down, tackle him, and “go for the kill.” It was hysterically ferocious and comical.

And so my guard slipped back down.

Then it happened. Our little whippet girl, Lacy, dainty and all legs and speed, popped out of the dog door with a bunny-like hop and Kainan grabbed her. He reacted as if by instinct. Grab the prey.

Jim was just inside the house and was out the door to break things up in an instant. But it still happened. And our little Lacy got some puncture wounds in the process.

You could explain it away. Lacy moves very erratically and very quickly. If she popped out right on top of him…well…you can almost understand what happened. But still.

So we watched. We redirected Kainan when we felt his focus was inappropriate. We kept a close eye on Lacy.

And then it happened to Nora, our senior Dalmatian. We’re not sure what caused the incident, but Kainan went after her. Again, Jim was there quickly. Nora was not badly injured.

But still.

We had a problem. And it was a problem we always knew might surface. Wolfdogs are not dogs. Wolfdogs are not wolves. And there’s the tricky part.

You don’t know what you’ve got until they turn two.

I have watched the well-educated, experienced people who run Freedom’s Song. They too live with wolfdogs. I know that not all wolfdogs are social to people. We are very lucky that Kainan is. He is quite friendly and very appropriate around people.

I have also never seen him act aggressively when we see other dogs. He has been out and about with us to a few places where we have encountered other dogs on leash and he has been fine. We don’t let other dogs rush up to him, we don’t ask for trouble, but Kainan has consistently remained calm.

Now, this behavior at home, well, it actually makes sense to me. This is his space. This is his home territory. We have asked him to share it with a number of other dogs. And we have dogs come and go from time to time as foster dogs come in and eventually leave for homes of their own. It’s a busy place, and can be a stressful situation for some dogs, but we are generally good at finding balance and keeping the peace.

So now it appears that Kainan has a little circle of friends that he prefers…I call them his gang. And it also appears we have some dogs that he does not want in his circle. So who makes the rules? Wolfdog or humans?

Calm before the pounce

Still good play…I promise!

Well, it has to the be humans, but we have to have respect for Kainan’s view of the world as well. As I tell every training client who has dog to dog issues in their home, just because YOU like a dog and want to add it to the family does not mean your dog is going to like it as well. Humans don’t like every other human they meet…I don’t. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be asked to live just any other person that comes along.

But humans ask their dogs to do that all the time and then seem appalled when the dogs don’t agree with the decision.

So what to do?

Well, I jokingly say that Kainan is currently grounded. He is not allowed to play unsupervised with all of the other dogs loose as he once did. We have supervised sessions several times a day with Kainan loose with all of the dogs, and then we give Kainan his own space with his little gang.

Fortunately, our world is physically set up to handle this new routine. We have sturdy dog runs that allow access inside the house and to outdoor space. We have two dog yards. We can allow Kainan to play with his little gang, while keeping the other dogs separate and safe.

And we are dedicated to doing a lot of work with Kainan. Jim and I have worked out a plan for reminding Kainan the benefits of offering desired behavior. We are focusing on spending a lot more one-on-one time with him. We are working to teach him a strong recall – no matter what the distraction in the world around him.

We’re also giving him constant feedback when he is loose with all of the dogs. My own belief, backed by a recent online course presented by Dr. Ian Dunbar, advocates giving dogs like Kainan consistent input. If he’s playing nicely, he gets lots of praise and reinforcement. If we see that he’s starting to be a bully or he’s starting to get too rowdy, we call him, we interrupt the action. He gets told “uh-uh,” and redirected. The moment his behavior shifts back to calm and loose, he is praised.

If he crosses any tiny line, it’s game over. He is removed from play.

There is no hitting. There are no shock collars (and BOY are there a lot of people who love to go there…that’s a topic for another day). There are no harsh prong collars. There is no physical punishment beyond limiting his freedom.

There is feedback. Lots of meaningful, timely feedback. And we are patient. And we are fair. And we are learning.  All of us. Kainan is as much our teacher as he is our student.

We love Kainan and we are committed to his welfare and his well-being. That means it’s our job to understand his way of thinking. It’s our job to help this home and life work well for all of us. We don’t want to “dominate” Kainan, we want to provide leadership. If we are good and fair leaders, then everything else can fall into place.

We will make wise choices too. We may have to rethink what types of dogs and how many dogs we can foster. We can do that. Our own dogs come first.

We hope this is just a phase for Kainan. He is not one tiny bit aggressive. In fact, one stern look from me or Jim sends him sprawling to the ground in an apologetic pile. He is just mature now (and yes, neutered, but that doesn’t change who/what he is!), he has instincts, and he is testing the boundaries of  his world. We hope that with fair, positive-focused training, Kainan will be work through his terrible twos to be able to be free-roaming with the other dogs again soon.

But if he can’t…if living with a number of other dogs is just not right for him…we will deal with that too. We will make sure he has always has a great life that is fair to him, while also fair to the other dogs that share our home. We made that commitment to Kainan when we took him in and we will always stand by it.

We know he is new territory for us. We still have a lot to learn, and so does Kainan. But I know it will work out. Everyone is OK. Kainan is happy and being very compliant. Oh, and he really loves turkey hot dogs for his training treats.

This too shall pass. He is still very much our big, fuzzy, lovable guy who, 9.5 times out of 10, gets along great with our furry family.

But oh the terrible twos. I’m so ready for three.

Kainan and shadow 2

Where Sunflowers Grow

Run in Peace Big PaulThe patch of broken, brown earth stood out in sharp contrast to the surrounding blanket of green dotted with splashes of colorful wildflowers. This was the first time I had ventured out to visit this spot in the pasture since the day it happened more than two months ago.

I looked at the packets in my hand, eight in all. There were two each of four varieties of sunflower: Mammoth, Moonshine, Autumn Beauty, and American Giant. The promise of the massive flowers seemed a fitting tribute to my big boy. Soon, I hoped to see a small forest of sunflowers covering the bare spot in the earth that marked the place where Paul, my big draft horse, was buried.

It was a gorgeous spring day. The perfect day for a walk in the pasture. Life was erupting all around me. The trees were covered with tender, brilliant green leaves unfurling to greet the changing season. The birds darted about, busily tending their nests. Insects flitted lazily about from blossom to blossom, finding nourishment as the warmth of the morning sun fueled their meandering mission.

Hi there NanYet I stood oblivious to the spring parade. I was fixated on that one patch of cracked, clumpy earth that represented the beautiful ghost still testing my heart.

I’m no stranger to loss. We live with lots of animals…all lives more temporary than our own. We’ve said our share of goodbyes and we always find a way to celebrate the beings that have shared their time here with us. Each has taught a lesson, each has been a blessing.

But, Big Paul. I just wasn’t coming to terms with his loss. The stately Belgian horse who won my heart from one photo on a Facebook page. Our story was supposed to roll gently toward a very distant sunset. It was not supposed to be a short story, over in just a couple of chapters.

So my morning visit to Paul’s piece of earth was to find resolution. It was my private ceremony. I was going to welcome closure.

gogo 2016Standing clutching the seed packets in my right hand, I heard a quiet shuffling behind me. I turned to see GoGo, our old appaloosa mare, with her nose to the ground as she followed my trail through the pasture as surely as a faithful tracking dog.

GoGo is a special girl. She is 30 years old. She has lost her vision. But she doesn’t hide in the barn, she doesn’t beg for special care. In fact, she won’t tolerate being kept in a stall or safely confined to a paddock. She is, despite the toll advancing years have exacted, strong-willed and determined to keep pace with the rest of our horses. Where one sense has failed her, others have grown stronger. She is a survivor.

I stroked the sweet mare’s neck as she sniffed the seed packets, perhaps checking to see if I might be holding a carrot or a horse cookie. I was immediately thankful GoGo decided to join my private memorial service. The mare who had graced our farm for such a long time, joining me as I paid respect to the horse who touched my life so profoundly in such a short amount of time. Perfect.

I opened the packets, one by one, and sprinkled the contents across the bare earth, watching as the small seeds bounced and tumbled into the cracks and crevices. Soon they would find purchase, sprout, and spring back up toward the sky, strong, tall, and golden. Just like Big Paul was.

Job done, GoGo and I retraced our steps and headed back to where the rest of our little herd watched in seemingly silent homage. Did they know I needed some space? My very spoiled animals are not known for restraint, especially when they see a human that normally has pockets filled with cookies. But somehow, today, they showed quiet respect.

As I moved closer to the barn, the truce was broken and my herd surrounded me, snorting and sniffing. I looked into a half dozen pairs of soft, hopeful eyes as impatient noses pushed at my hands and nudged my pockets.

In that moment, it hit me. Just as surely as the sunflower seeds would sprout roots in the fertile soil and grow to fill the cracks and gaps in the broken earth, these silly horses and donkeys, in the here and now, would help fill the cracks and gaps in the fertile ground of my heart.

I would always remember, and I would always be grateful for what was, but I could also let go. It was time to stop replaying the pain of loss and instead focus on the good times I had with Big Paul. And it was also time to simply allow myself to appreciate what was standing right in front of me.

Just like that, a spring day became a gift. The sunflowers to come became a promise. A ghost became a beautiful memory. A heart was allowed to begin healing.

Oh…and yeah…a little herd of horses, donkeys, and one fine mule got to eat cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.