M is for Mystery

When you “rescue” a dog, unless it is an owner surrender with a uniquely upfront surrenderer, the dog’s previous life is a complete mystery.

We look at Mia all the time and ask her, “What were your families like before us?”

Mia hopped right in our car the day we met. Who would abandon this face? (Those aren't mites on her face, but white microbeads from a headrest Leo tore apart while we were meeting Mia.)

Mia hopped right in our car the day we met. Who would abandon this face? (Those aren’t mites, by the way, but white microbeads from a headrest Leo tore apart while we were meeting her.)

Mia came to live with us when she was about 7. The only things we know for sure are:

  • She answers to the name Mia.
  • She was microchipped but not registered.
  • She was spayed.
  • She was vaccinated.

Mia was living with a family on an Indian reservation for a few weeks, where she was probably outside, off leash, and unfenced most of the day, but slept inside at night. Her foster mother said Mia had two other families before us, and that the most recent one moved away and couldn’t take her along.

“Who would leave behind a Mia?” Rob and I ask ourselves every day.

Lately, we’ve started wondering if maybe she didn’t have a home because she ate it. We thought we’d solved the problem of door-chewing by leaving all the inside doors open, but then she started working on the door from the laundry room to the garage, and the moulding by the sliding glass door to the backyard. I fear she’ll turn on the front door next. When we got home from work on Friday, she’d torn the doorknob OFF the door to the garage, so now we can’t open it from the inside.

I took her for a long walk that evening and tried to figure it out. Why does she hate closed doors so much? Why was she close to perfect for two years before this started?

All the solutions that I can think of — leaving her outside, taking her with me, having Rob’s parents come by more often — none of those would have made a difference on a Friday when I couldn’t have taken her to work, didn’t want to leave her outside from 9 to 6*, and Rob’s parents were out of town. The best option is blocking her access to the doors. We can put an X-pen across the door to the kitchen, which keeps her away from the sliding door and the laundry room. Maybe we should blockade the front door too …

Later that night, our security cameras started beeping. After Mia’s first door destruction, I blamed the beeping from Rob’s car alarm key fob. Oh, the cruel irony. The very device that allows us to watch Mia destroy the doors could be the thing that causes her to destroy the doors.

Rob got on the phone with customer service and we think we’ve got the beeping fixed.

Again, my suspicion is that the beeping makes Mia anxious, so she tries to escape it, this time out to the garage or the backyard. Then again, maybe she’s trying to get inside the garage, where I like to hide cooked liver for her to find. I may never know.

And that’s what makes Mia a Mystery.


*Wondering why I don’t want to leave Mia outside from 9-6? Check back in two days for the letter O.

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Me and my exceptionally healthy dogs

This post was supposed to be about my volunteer orientation at the Humane Society, but I had a crazy sore throat on Friday, and had to sleep all day Saturday (missing the orientation for this month) to rid myself of the cold demon. It worked, but made for a bummer of a weekend, especially since I already had a cold of the cough variety for two-plus weeks in January.

Back then, I wrote the following, but never posted it.

Jan. 13: My poor doggies spent all of last week indoors while I sat in the recliner and watched all three seasons of Veronica Mars. Around the country, dogs were confined because of the polar vortex, or because their owners had the flu. I didn’t have the flu. For the first two days, I didn’t know what I had. Headache, chest pains, and the early rumblings of a cough. Since I suffer from headaches so frequently, and no over-the-counter medication makes any difference, I didn’t take anything for my illness, just sat on the recliner and watched television.

Those first two days were confusing. What is this? Am I getting better? Am I justified in taking the day off work? I decided that the time off work was appropriate; the litmus test being that if I can’t get up to take the dogs for a walk, I must be sick.

By day three, I had a cough for real. Oh, yeah, I have a cold. Now I know what to expect.

I was reminded of my endless recovery from a tonsillectomy. There’s something very scary about not knowing when one will get better. Is this going to be forever?

Once I knew it was just a cold, I rolled with it, but I still felt bad for the dogs. They didn’t complain, though, just slept on the couches beside me all day long. Around three each day, they did a little wrestling that forced me to pause my show because I couldn’t hear it over their rumbling. I’m constantly worried that they aren’t getting enough stimulation, and when I’m sitting beside them all day, I know they aren’t getting enough.


Yeah, I felt so guilty, I didn’t want to tell the Internet how badly I was failing to stimulate my dogs. Once I was well enough to get off my butt, we started doing nose work in the garage, and I’m committed to walking them more often.

I also hadn’t taken either of them to the vet in more than a year. The last time I took Mia, our very nice doctor suggested that she lose some weight. We worked on that for a while, and I even walked the dogs to the vet’s office just to weigh her so we could track her progress. When the pounds failed to melt away (on either of us), I sort of gave up on that, and have been afraid to take her back.

Can you believe it? Our society’s obsession with body weight made me afraid to take my dog to the vet! But then I heard an episode of Fernando Camacho’s wonderful podcast, The Great Dog Adventure, about caring for a senior dog, and it reminded me of my negligence.

Something else was at work, too. I was afraid that if we took Mia to the vet, she might get diagnosed with something terrible. Three years ago, our beloved Isis died suddenly from something I don’t think we could have prevented. Part of me wanted to stick my head in the sand with Mia. We’re going to lose her someday, better to enjoy every minute, since we can’t prevent it anyway. I don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on dog medical treatment if she’s just going to die anyway.

We kept getting postcards saying that Leo was overdue for his checkup, so I faced my fear and took them both in this morning. This could be a good tradition: taking my dogs for their checkup around the anniversary of Isis’s death, to remind myself that I am doing everything possible to take the best care of them I possibly can.

Long story short: They’re both in fantastic health. The vet called them “exceptionally healthy dogs.” Glossy coats, no sign of pain in their joints. He admired Leo’s magnificent teeth and cringed when I told him my secret is “raw bones.” Our vet clinic doesn’t recommend a raw diet, but the doctor couldn’t argue with the results!

At 97.7 pounds, even Leo could stand to lose 5 pounds, according to the vet, but I think he looks pretty lean. He’s a big boy! I was surprised he hadn’t topped 100 pounds. Mia, on the other hand, weighed 89 pounds, having lost 2 pounds since her last visit.

I’ll take it.

Snoopy's Dog Blog

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Three new friends

Today I signed up to volunteer at the Humane Society of Skagit Valley. I’ve always wanted to walk shelter dogs, but have never done so before, because it seemed like I ought to be walking my own dogs.

Well, why not do both?

Truth be told, I found myself on the HSSV website yesterday fantasizing about getting another dog. I’m conflicted, because on the one hand, I want Leo to have a playmate who will run around with him more than Mia does. On the other, I’m scared of having to break up a three-way dog fight.

I saw this handsome fellow’s profile and felt sad that he’s been in the shelter since November, after being found all by his lonesome on a mountain trail.

But how to know whether he’d get along with my pups? Maybe I should go visit him.

Then I saw this guy, and my heart broke to read that he’s never been allowed indoors. He might not even be house trained.


I can’t adopt all the dogs, as much as I’d like to, but I can visit them regularly. And if in getting to know them, I think one of them might be a good match for our family, I can bring Rob and the dogs over to meet him. (Assuming our next dog will be a boy, in the interest of preserving Queen Mia’s status.)

My volunteer orientation isn’t for a few weeks, but I introduced myself to all the dogs today. Jeck, the shepherd, was the first one I met. He was very mellow, sullen even, but he kindly angled his body for me to scratch his butt as best I could through the bars. What would that be like, to adopt an adult dog who had never been inside, who wasn’t even house-trained? Could he stay out in the yard all day, and then sleep inside with all of us at night?

Jeck was quiet, but Hugo, the brindle pit bull, and his next door neighbor, Koa, were rowdy. Hugo jumped up on the bars and pawed the plexiglass. Let me out! I want to play. I’ve been in here so long.

Oh, Hugo, how I wanted to play with you.

Here’s Koa’s profile:

Koa looked at me soulfully and barked when I paid attention to Hugo. Don’t be swayed by his fancy brindle markings. Black dogs always get overlooked in shelters!

Boys, boys. Be patient. I’ll come visit you as soon as I can. And if some wonderful person takes you home before I get back, I’ll understand.

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Another throwback snow day

We got one day of snow in 2013. I took the day off and the dogs and I visited Rob at work for a snowy walk. Later, Rob’s mom asked if Leo likes the snow as much as Isis did. Nope. Wonder why that is, what made Isis love the snow so much she had to put a paw in every inch of it.

In remembrance of that brief moment of snow the Friday before Christmas, I give you the scene from Bark and Lunge where Isis first sees snow:

first snow

We woke the next day, delighted to see a layer of white coating our backyard. Our first snow in the new house.

Isis’s initial steps in the snow were tentative. Where did the grass go? With just a few more steps, she decided she liked it and pounced in the snow, mouthing and play-bowing to it.

Rob dressed Isis in the coat he’d bought her during his shopping spree: light brown faux suede with a shearling lining. I looked at the two of them and wondered whether Rob realized that he had picked out a miniature dog version of his own coat.

matching coats

The snow stayed on the ground all weekend, and the temperature dropped so the roads were icy by Monday morning. The news people kept saying, “If you don’t have to leave the house, don’t.” Had I still worked as a newspaper reporter, I would have been expected not only to leave the house, but to experience the inconvenience and hazards of the bad weather so I could write about them. Lucky for me, I didn’t work for a newspaper anymore.

I sat at the kitchen table in my pajamas and watched the weather reports in a loop on Northwest Cable News. Isis still cried every time I left the room without her, so I never even took a shower. She poked around my feet, then napped on the plush tan bed in her crate while I repeatedly clicked “check mail” on my laptop.

When the sun came out, I slipped my boots and parka over my pajamas and snapped a leash on Isis. She waded beside me through snow as high as her fuzzy black belly. Nosing the terrain, she dusted her muskrat face with white flakes, her oversized pointed ears as long as her muzzle.

We walked around the side of the house to the front yard where Isis sat down in the snow and assessed her surroundings. The neighbors, college kids who rented the house next door, had built an igloo. A blue sky framed our plowed street, nearly devoid of cars, and Rob’s tire tracks had carved trails in the layer of snow covering our long driveway shaded by a canopy of cedar branches. A creek ran along the other side of our house, where icicles formed underneath blackberry brambles. I walked Isis up the stone steps to our front porch, past our little garden with a heavenly bamboo plant bent in half from the weight of the snow.

“This is a magical place where we live,” I told Isis.

licking snow

How to walk a “normal” dog


Things that have happened during my recent mellow meanderings with Mia:

1. A loose dog ran down the middle of a busy street toward us. We crossed the street to see if he had a tag on his collar, but he did not. We walked with him up a cul de sac where we found a neighbor who told us the dog just roams loose all the time. I was not entirely satisfied with this answer, but the dog stayed in the cul de sac. Short of calling animal control, I didn’t know what else I could do.

2. A couple was jogging with a dog across the street. I quickened my pace because Mia and the dog kept sneaking looks at each other. The couple must have crossed the street and slowed their pace to walk behind me, which I only realized when I turned around to go back for a poop bag I’d left behind. When I saw them, I said, “Oh, sorry.” And they said, “No, you’re fine,” walked around us and jogged off on their merry way.

3. While walking at night, we saw a man and a dog heading toward us on the same side of the street. So accustomed am I to veering very far around all other warm-bodied creatures, I swung a wide berth. The man asked if his dog could say Hi, so we moved closer. The man told me his dog’s name and said he was 12 years old. Since it was dark, I hadn’t realized how gray the dog’s muzzle was, or that he appeared to be a pit mix. Our dogs sniffed each other very politely. I wondered later whether the man thought I was trying to avoid him because his dog was a pit bull. He may well have considered it his duty to show me how friendly his dog was, when really, my only concern was that I not make anyone uncomfortable by bringing my scary German shepherd too close.

4. While walking at night, with a reflective light attached to Mia’s collar, I saw a blur of white in the street up ahead. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realized it was a light-colored dog being walked on a leash. Maybe its owner was trying to swing a wide berth around us, but they still passed pretty close. The dog lunged toward us excitedly, so I let Mia sniff hello. Did I have another option? There was nowhere else to go, but I suppose I could have tried to hustle her past the other dog without them meeting.

The other dog reared back its head and yip/snarled (yarled?). Sounding mildly exasperated, and yet also mildly surprised, the owner said to her dog, “What’s that about? Was it the light?” I was 10 steps ahead at that point and wanted to say something reassuring, because boy, have I been there. But I also know the most helpful thing the non-reacting dog can do in that situation is get out of there.

I called back a very socially awkward mumble that was supposed to convey, “You know, maybe it was the light around Mia’s neck. But don’t worry about it. You’re fine. Your dog’s fine. We’re cool. Have a nice night.” I think what came out was: “Huh, yeah, mayb.” (sic. I didn’t actually say the last syllable of “maybe.”)

Now, I don’t know if that’s the first time her dog has ever been unfriendly to another dog, but I do know that saying something like “What’s that about?” is a reflex when you have a reactive dog. One must give the appearance to other dog owners that one knows one’s dog has been inappropriate.

The last incident really drove home the fact that I do not know how to walk a normal dog.

Social mores likely vary among regions. In some parts of the country, I’m sure it’s considered very rude to let your dog anywhere near another person, but here in the Northwest, we are beyond dog friendly. Our local bookstore even welcomes pooches.

That said, I don’t know whether I’m supposed to veer away from other people walking their dogs, as I attempted to do with the man and his pit bull, or let them get within sniffing distance, as I did with the woman and the light-colored dog.

Both felt wrong to me, but either is fine by Mia, because she is a “normal dog.” Her hackles might go up if she doesn’t like what she smells, she might notice another leashed dog at a distance, but generally speaking, she’s not going to bark, lunge, and pull me off my feet. She’s not going to snarl, snap at, or bite another dog.

Leo, on the other hand, is not allowed to walk around our neighborhood, because he would not have handled any of the above situations well. He would have barked and lunged at all those dogs. Actually, he might have made the best impression in that last scenario. If I let him pull on his leash right up to every dog he sees, to let him get a good sniff, I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t bark and lunge at them. Fairly. But I don’t let him do that, because as dog friendly a town as this is, I know better than to let my 100-pound German shepherd get all up in everydog’s face.

What should the rule be? Do I have to call out to every dog-walker I see: “My dog’s friendly. Is yours? Can she say hello?” Because you know there are lots of people who will say yes, even when the answer is no.


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Exercising a Dog’s Mind

John Pilley uses old-school psychology to train his border collie in Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, co-authored with Hilary Hinzmann. What a coincidence that the methods he uses, based on his experience as a professor of human psychology, look a lot like force-free dog training!

With one exception: Like Ted Kerasote in Merle’s Door, Pilley turns to an aversive method to curb Chaser’s “chase drive.” While Kerasote used a shock collar, Pilley uses a mighty jerk of a long line and a stern “No.” It’s hard for me to say these techniques are wrong, wrong, wrong, because as far as reported, they prevented the dogs from chasing things, and neither Merle nor Chaser developed aggressive or fearful tendencies as a result. I can say that knowing what I now know, I would never use either method on a dog.

Otherwise, the book is a joy to read. I love that this retired professor refers to himself as Chaser’s “Pop Pop” (because that’s what his grandson calls him). Throughout, Pilley emphasizes how much fun it is for Chaser to learn new words. He turns down an offer to let another scientist work with her, which would have meant more academic acclaim, because that would mean having Chaser live with someone else temporarily. Above all, Chaser is a family dog.

When Chaser appears on the Today Show, Pilley feels bad that Chaser doesn’t have a chance to play with her toys after fetching them by name for Matt Lauer. Chaser is supposed to get to play with her toys as her reward for fetching the right toy.

I’ve heard dog trainers brag about how many words their dogs know. How do they really know? I wondered. Beyond their names and basic obedience commands, most dogs know “outside” or “walk” or “dinner,” but how do you keep track of the number of words? Pilley set about it scientifically, by giving each toy a unique name. He has a list of 1,022 different toy names that Chaser understands. He also teaches her categories of words: she knows a racquetball by its name “Blue,” and also knows that it is a “toy” and a “ball.”

Like Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls — One Flying Disc at a Time, Chaser is a book about a dog of extraordinary achievement. While both dogs are special, neither would have been a superstar without the devotion of the “handler” (owner…trainer…Pop Pop, whatever you want to call them).

Pilley works with Chaser for hours a day. With that much dedication, I bet any dog of above average intelligence could learn quite a few words.

As I said in my post about Wallace, I wish I’d known about flying disc, or at least been able to turn catching soccer balls into a “job” for Isis. Reading about Chaser makes me wish Leo and Mia had that much enthusiasm about anything. Leo especially. Mia is content to sit in the backyard with her Jolly Ball and bark at us. But Leo’s still young. He needs stimulation. We took him to a nose work class, and he liked it all right, I guess, but not enough for me to keep at it. It seemed like a lot of money and effort to drive to a class where each dog only gets instruction for a few minutes at a time.

I wish Leo were as passionate about play as Isis was. I’m as devoted to my dogs as Wallace’s and Chaser’s people. I would gladly spend hours a day working on something Leo loved as much as Isis loved soccer. Sometimes in the evenings, especially during the winter when it’s cold and dark, I look at restless Leo mouthing the sofa cushion and think, “What? What is it that we can do that would keep us entertained for hours? What would hold your interest, Leo? Tell me!”

Any thoughts, friends? Remember, Leo is leash-reactive, so long walks are challenging, but I think that’s what he enjoys most: excursions. It’s kind of nice on really cold evenings. I take him somewhere well-lit, where no one else is out who will incite his barking and lunging.

Aside from that, he loses interest in fetch fairly quickly. We have agility equipment, but like everything else, he goes over the A-frame once, maybe twice and is done with it. Same with Rally-O. The kid only wants to practice his sits so many times. Then I get a blank stare. Honestly, I don’t think he’s as bright as Chaser, otherwise, I’d start acquiring hundreds of toys.



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