Where There’s A Willow, There’s A Way

                                                                                 How Could You??

The puppy is now about a year and half old.  She has come a long way from berserk. four pound sheep hunter to wily, seventeen pound combination persistent nuisance to all things and loving, loyal member of our home pack.  She still has miles to go before we all sleep well, but the girl is on a good path.

I know a lot more now than I did “B.W.” (Before Willow).  My two other Jack Russells lulled me into a smug sense of security that time and training would produce a calm, stable, companionable dog in a year.  Willow has dispelled any notion I had that nurture can override nature, sort of like the false security you have that your software will protect you against Heartbleed or some other such insidious virus.  She has a prey drive second only to a hyena with the scream to match, and only another piece of prey can pull off one scent to another. There’s yet to be a cookie invented that can compete with a chattering chipmunk. Perhaps if I rolled myself in raw meat, I might have greater appeal to her, but I have this image in my mind of being taken down by coyotes or bears, or at least every other dog in the neighborhood save mine.

Her recall is spotty.  I don’t chase her any longer.  Long gone are the days when she would take off through out rural area, this mostly small white streak, with me in pursuit (usually in my bed slippers), through horse pastures, cow pastures, pig sties, and chicken coops.  If she leaves the farm perimeter (which is, admittedly, less often) for far-flung fields, that’s her choice.  It isn’t that I don’t care or that I don’t worry:  I’ve simply learned that the less I holler for her and simply take Martha and Gus inside or continue playing with them, the game is over.  She can’t stand not being the center of attention and comes back of her own accord out of curiosity about what she may be missing.  Like the new raw food treats.

She’s also taught me you can put everything you’ve got into a dog, but the dog has to want to meet you halfway.  A  dog makes choices, good and not so good.  Sometimes, you just have to wait until the brain is more mature and just hope the dog survives its less stellar choices.  Willow isn’t Gus, who walks at heel through the forest off leash, looks up for permission to chase a squirrel, and, now that he has the Tasmanian Devil as a little sister, has the patience of Job.  Martha, blissfully deaf and much less patient with Willow’s antics, snarls.  Any resemblance to my own human family life is purely coincidental.  Or maybe not.

I am hoping one day, in our dotage, to be glad after all that I brought her home.  I want to look back and, like labor, not really remember how the early days of our lives drove me to the brink of psychosis.  I want to be able to buy good sheets again without resigning myself to the holes that will be chewed in them.  And I would like to answer the front door like a normal person, not hiding behind the tiny crack like a hoarder, with dogs snapping at my heels to charge the unseen intruder.  I’m certain at this point, we’ve been removed from the Jehovah’s Witness visitors list, and I must admit, I miss having someone to talk to occasionally.

Rescuing Ruby

Happier Days

Happier Days

This wasn’t what my mother had in mind for her dog when she had a mind.

In the same way we believe that nothing bad will ever happen to us when we are 18 and immortal, when Mom adopted Ruby, she never anticipated she would get Alzheimer’s. Mom never thinks she’s old, either, but that has more to do with vanity than the deterioration of her cognitive and motor skills. Mom was about 79 when she adopted Ruby, who was two. In fairness to my mother, none of us argued with her desire to have this little dog. We all thought it was a great fit. In that moment. And so it was for several years.

But no one asked what might happen to the dog as my mother aged. No one thought to make a plan for Ruby in the event Mom died. Or worse. And worse happened.

If you read my post from September about Mom and Ruby you will think that my mother’s sad story had a happy ending for Ruby. My nephew wanted to take her into his family. On paper, great. In the real world, not so much. Ruby doesn’t do well with 4 year-old boys whose love is expressed in an exuberant, physical way. She snapped at the boy, the boy’s mother (rightfully) nixed the deal, and Ruby came back to my sister’s house. With her two Yorkie Poos. And Ruby doesn’t really love other dogs. She snaps at them, too.

She wants what she was accustomed to — her human, her home. What she has is confusion and a lot of time in a crate right now. She has my stressed out sister who has a hellish schedule. What she must be thinking.

When my mother lived near me, both she and Ruby spent a lot of time at my farm. After my mom fell ill, I took Ruby for extended periods. She did just okay with my dogs (BP — Before Puppy). She has an autoimmune medical condition that requires daily meds for the rest of her life, and she is not a spring chicken herself. Flying her back here is not an option any more.

The upshot of this is that Ruby is going to an Italian Greyhound Rescue Organization foster home, maybe for the rest of her life. I am as horrified and heartbroken and guilt-ridden as I am grateful and relieved that these fine people are so dedicated to their volunteer mission that they are doing for Ruby what we cannot. I have never surrendered an animal in my life. If my mother knew the truth and understood it, she would be shattered. My sister and I decided it was best to lie to her and tell her that Ruby was going back to California to live with the cousin that gave her to Mom in the first place.

I know a little about where she is headed, having checked out the organization and spoken to the foster family, a retired couple who have been in rescue over 20 years. I tell myself to have faith that Ruby will find happiness and love there. And permanency. Faith is something that doesn’t come very easily to me. Lose your husband, your best friend, your father, your health, a few dozen friends to the scourge of AIDS in the space of a decade, and you begin to understand the point of view of the Pharoah a little bit when all the plagues were raining down in Egypt. Still, when all the other options are spent, faith is what is left.

When I had a health scare years ago, I made a will and a trust. I put all of my animals in as property in my trust as well as a fund for them. At the time, I had horses, so it was more elaborate than it is now. Like kids, each of my dogs has a guardian who has agreed to take them for the rest of their lives. It’s unlikely that I will bring any more animals into my home (or at least I won’t go out searching for any). Willow (if she lives as long as Martha has) and I will be old ladies together (I’m still on the fence about her chances of staying out of that much trouble but with age, hopefully, comes wisdom). Going through this with Mom and with Ruby has taught me that a part of our responsibility to our pets is also knowing when not to have them.

Please Recycle: Bailey The Reusable Dog


They found her in the back seat of a stranger’s car at the mall, wearing a tired red collar without a tag, a crumpled paper sack holding two cans of dog food next to her bushy black tail.

Whoever left her probably believed they were doing the best thing, that maybe the owner of a nice car would have the money to keep her and care for her. She was well groomed and well fed; her people had cared for her. Whatever it was that brought them to the point of parting with her — a divorce, a deployment, a lost job. They must have believed this was better than taking her to a shelter.

But the owner of the nice car didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t keep her, and she ended up at the shelter anyway, one of the several million homeless dogs that are killed in shelters every year, one of several thousand dogs that are killed in animal shelters each day. Just like those dogs, she was born, she played, she loved, and she bonded to someone before that day. When her people’s luck ran out, so did hers. Almost.

Someone must have seen something special in her brown eyes, in the way she basked in even the smallest of attention paid to her, the way she seemed to smile when spoken to in a soft voice. Someone noticed her behind the bars of the cage as they walked through the kennel, her quiet manner unlike the others barking and jumping. “This one can be saved,” they thought, “this one is adoptable.”

The animal rescue group took her from the shelter and brought her to a farm, to a foster family who would take care of her, be kind to her, and get to know her while the group tried to find her a forever home. The foster family didn’t name her, and she had no way of telling them her name. The tentativeness of her situation made her watchful and careful, on her best behavior so the awful loss would not happen again. She must have grieved for her people.

It happened one day that I had a chance encounter with the woman from the farm at the feed store. She was buying some sort of monstrous looking metal device for her sow, Oona. We got to talking as we stood in line, and I ended up following her back to her farm to see the sow which lived up to its description of being as large as a Volkswagen Beetle. Oona was as nasty as she was large, so one look over the rail of the pen was plenty enough pig.

As we walked around the farm, I noticed the black dog almost surgically attached to the woman’s leg. The dog had not left her side from the moment of our arrival and had, in fact, leaped a three foot fence to get to her.

I said “That dog is really attached to you.” And the woman told me what she knew of the dog’s story. I knelt down on the soft grass to pet her, and I could feel this dog’s big heart radiating under my hand. My own dog, BJ The Wonder Dog, lay in the cool shaded grass, waiting for me. I stood up, thanked the woman for allowing us to visit, and opened the back of my Explorer for BJ to hop in. He did.

And in less than a minute, the black dog with the soulful eyes looked up at the woman, and, having made her own decision about her fate, hopped up into the Explorer right next to BJ. I looked at the two smiling, happy dogs in my truck and then over at the woman.

“I guess she’s found her home,” she said, smiling.

“I guess she has,” I replied, closing the tailgate of the truck.

I had gone to see a pig and come away with a used dog.

Bailey melded into our lives as if she’d always been a part of us. She patiently raised a kitten, and she was a companion not only to me but to BJ as age wore him down. When his sight went, she would use her body to herd him from the yard to the porch steps, her nose nudging his legs up the steps to the front door. Her devotion to him was amazing to witness, and when it came time to let him go, she grieved with me.

For the five years I had her, I often silently thanked the people who gave her up. She embodied everything that is best in dogs: their inexhaustible capacity for forgiveness, for loyalty, for love without condition. I think they help bring out those qualities in us, too.

But there’s something extra special about shelter dogs. They teach us about gratitude. In the end, it’s hard to say who saved whose life.

The Talk Of The Town




Coming to this tiny Northwest town from Los Angeles, where the only thing anyone wants from a neighbor is anonymity, it hadn’t occurred to me I might attract much attention. 


My neighbors still referred to my property as the “Old Johnson Place,” although I didn’t buy it from the Johnson’s and there was not one person named Johnson on any of the farms bordering mine. No mind — nearly everyone nearby was related in some way, not only to Old Johnson but also to each other.  That was more than a bit disconcerting, and there were terrible flashes of dueling banjos playing in my head, but most of them seemed nice enough and their children looked normal.   


My farm sits on five acres on long road that has historically been its own community.  Settled by Scandinavian immigrants around the end of the 19th Century, it is dotted by family farms handed down through the generations.  New people are warmly welcomed but are also the subject of much curiosity and even more gossip.


It’s been said, “love is blind, but not your neighbors.” Apparently, they aren’t deaf, either. 


It was Barney that helped me first cross the social gap from newcomer to, well, village idiot, a position in the community I would hold until someone finally did something dumber than I could conjure up on my own. 


Barney, the tough looking Shepherd/Rottweiller cross I had adopted in L.A. had every reason to mistrust and dislike people. He was found wandering in a part of L.A. known for gang wars and dog fighting. He had cigarette burn scars on his body, places where chains had rubbed his coat away, and the crooked reminder that someone had broken his back legs.


The name on the “Needs A Good Home” poster at my vet’s office was “Blazer,” and I remember thinking:  what a dumb name for a dog.


My wonderful shelter rescue Bailey had died six months earlier, and Rupert, my Jack Russell, and I felt like we were missing a limb. Together, we went to visit Blazer, who had been in a large metal crate for several weeks, and seemed a most docile though, understandingly, emotionally disconnected dog.  I’ve always had luck with the “used” dogs I’ve adopted, so I signed all the papers while watching Rupert trying to entice a bewildered Blazer to play by barking at him in the “down dog” play position and then scurrying around him to tug on his bushy tail.  Blazer displayed no hint of canine social skills, and, although never aggressive toward other dogs, he lacked any real curiosity about them.


On the way home, the re-christened “Barney” rode shotgun in the small backseat of my pickup, complete with an enormous, plastic cone collar due to his neuter surgery and a full bladder that emptied between the vet’s office and my house. Not a glorious beginning.



This poor dog had never been inside a house, which, of course, meant he wasn’t housebroken. Or leash trained.  Or voice trained.  Why on earth would he have any reason to come to me when I didn’t know his “birth” name?  Maybe the mean people who’d had him didn’t call him anything but “Ashtray.” 


What I did know about him was that he was scared of making a mistake, and the thing he wanted more than anything – more than food, more than to be chased wildly through the deer paths of the canyon on what could loosely be called a “walk” — was to be stroked by a hand that wasn’t violent. Barney would be the dog to teach me about patience and the time it takes to heal from wounds of the psyche, and how trust can be mended as well as spirit. Everything else – name recognition, housebreaking, sitting, coming, staying – would work itself out with some time.  



And it did, or at least enough of it did. Still, despite the fact that he learned to sit and “give me five” for a cookie in fifteen minutes, Barney was and would remain unusual. He was his own dog.



Once we moved to the farm, he had five acres to freely patrol, and I watched with trepidation as he developed his pattern — out the back door, down the dirt path toward the back pasture, once around the fence line of pasture, then around the backside of the pond, along the side yard, through the front garden, across the property entrance and back to the inner garden to the back door.  Include stopping, sniffing and marking dozens of times, and Barney’s routine lasted anywhere from a full hour to over two.



For the first month or so, I was nervous that he would enlarge his circuit, wander into the road and get hit by a car, so I called him home incessantly. He’d look up at the sound of my voice, his tail would perk up and off he’d continue on his route, almost as if he was taunting me: You don’t know my secret name!!



In fact, because I was new to the road, it wasn’t until the first potluck dinner gathering some months later that I realized my neighbors knew more about Barney than they did about me.  I also learned how far my voice carried.  The conversation went like this:



Neighbor: Oh, you’re the new owner of the Old Johnson Place, aren’t you? Where’s your husband?



Me: Um, well, my husband died.


Neighbor, now with a horrified look on her face: Oh, no! I’m so sorry; we didn’t hear he had died. We would have come over, I feel so bad.



Me: No, no — it’s okay. My husband died in 1991.



Neighbor (with quizzical look on face, like the ones dogs get when they hear other dogs barking on TV): Oh. Well, then, who is Barney?



Me (laughing): Barney is my DOG!



Neighbor (now also laughing): Oh, God, we thought Barney was your husband! We always felt so sorry for him, the way you were always yelling at him to come in for dinner or come back to the house.



For the first few years we lived on the farm, it was a standing joke that I was married to a dog.


I figured I’d dated worse.