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Posts Tagged ‘dog psychology’

I’ve identified several different tail wags on Buddy.

  • When Buddy is happy that I’ve come home, his tail strays straight out behind him and wags back and forth real fast.
  • When he’s happy to be going for a walk and is loping down the road or through a field, he tail goes almost straight up and makes big circles that i call “helicopter tail.”
  • When he’s lying on his side on the our wooden or tile floors and thinks i may be coming over to give him attention, his tail goes up to his side, kind of halfway between up and straight back and makes a drumbeat on the floor.
  • when i’m straddling him, standing back by his butt, his tail bangs back and forth against the inside of my legs – this always cracks me up.

Is it true of all dog owners that these signs of our dog being happy make us also happy?  I think so, for all of us who are paying attention.

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Buddy and Lucy and i are walking up the hill behind our house.  The little white dog (looks kinda like an American Eskimo Dog I know) who lives just a little further up the hill has come down to greet them.  IMG_2007Buddy likes this little dog and loves to play chase games with her.  But today Lucy is there, too.

Either of these dogs somehow – wonerfully, instinctively – knows, when they play chase with Buddy, to slow down a little so that his old legs can keep up with them.  Otherwise there is no game.  But this morning wen the game begins, those two faster dogs take off and Buddy, unable to match their speed, quits and just watches them run.

I project that he is sad.

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Lucy is ours for the week, while tom takes his daughter off to college for her freshman year at college.  (Probably more exciting that scary for her – and 50-50 for him.)  Tom usually takes her to the kennel, but jumped at the chance to leave her at home, just 40 yards out our back door.  When Tom gone for the day or part of it, I let her in and out all day anyway (out when i come home, back in if i leave or at night – when it’s late enough that her baying could disturb even the neighbors 200 yards down the road and through a row of trees).

The notion was that i would again let her in Tom’s and her house at night and that she would be fine sleeping there.  Right.  There are several problems with this idea:

  • I think she’s too lonely.
  • probably because she’s lonely, she cries and howls unceasingly.  (Or at least i can’t bring myself – or sacrifice the sleep – to see if she ever ceases.)
  • We have had several bear visitations lately – a couple on my front porch, but mostly on Tom’s patio or out in his back yard.  For her to be home alone if a bear is right outside would, i think, just be too disturbing
  • It’s actually a little fun – or funny, at least – to have her stay at our house.

At first Buddy was not so sure it was fun – and i don’t think he ever actually finds things humorous, though i’m convinced that he enjoys making me laugh.  The couple of times i have tried boarding dogs at our house that Buddy does not know, he has become hopelessly neurotic: clingy, watching sadly if i give the other dog any attention, giving them the total cold shoulder like the intruder that for him they are.

I usually never allow Lucy in our house – and if she slips in when i’ve got the door open to bring in groceries, etc., Buddy’s food (which sits there all day because he only eats at night and lightly even then) is gone in about 30 seconds. Despite how much Buddy likes Lucy and how much fun they otherwise have, as soon as he realized – on Sunday evening – that she was staying in our house for the night, his neuroses set in.

Now Lucy is pushy at the best of times.  If she’s around when i am petting Buddy – or when he comes up to the car to greet me – she always tries to insert herself between us.  (If I were Buddy, this would get me very upset, but he pretty much rolls with it – partly because i, maybe a little unkindly, push Lucy away to give Buddy his rightful spot.  I would also reach out to pet her behind Buddy, but this only encourages her and she pushes in again.)

So, with Lucy in the house:

  • Buddy wants to be in the house, too – something he almost never wants in the warm weather.
  • He sticks to me like glue.  When he does come in the house, his usual fav spot is on the nice cushy area rug under the kitchen table.  With Dorie there, he wants to be right by me.  If i’m working at my desk, he wants to be right under the desk.  He almost never sleeps in my room, unless he has been scared by thunder, but now he only wants to sleep at the foot of my bed.

(Someone trained him never to get on furniture and he will not.  When if first got him and thought it might be nice for him to sleep on the bed with me, he got really uncomfortable and in a minute or so hoppped down.  When i tried to get him to sit on the sofa while i watched a video, he didn’t like that either.  Both were probably lousy ideas anyway, with a dog that spends so much time outside and tracks in mud and wet.)

But that same first night Lucy was here, i brought them both out on the darkened front porch to sit on the floor with me.  When i pushed Lucy away so that Buddy could have his usual spot between my legs, she flopped on the floor a few feet away.  But i think that Buddy was less threatened by Lucy being on our front porch than by her being in our house, because – after charging his love batteries for a few minutes on the floor close to me – when Lucy walked by, he started to playfully bite at her leg, like when he wants her to play.

Out on the porch, they did not get up for their outdoor wrestle and chase games, but just laid on the floor and rolled around, chewing on each other’s ears, necks and legs.  It was really very cute.  After that, Buddy seemed more relaxed about her being in our house.  i fantasize that some of the sweet side of having a sibling started to kick in.

Last night when i was working at my desk, Lucy immediately flopped down underneath me, under the desk.  I tried at first to get her to move, but she was obviously thinking “Down and heavy”, because she was almost immovable.  But then Buddy came over, managed to wedge himself beside her under the desk – and seemed completely content.

I think this might turn out to be good for Buddy.  And also good for me and Lucy: outside i mostly don’t give her any encouragement to push between me and Buddy.  With Tom gone, Lucy has imprinted herself on me like our last two missing-their-parents overnight guests.  She is wanting to come in and out during the day, which Buddy has no interest in doing.  Today, when at one point she was inside and Buddy outside, i actually felt free to give her some love.  She sucked it up hungrily – and naturally needed it, with Tom gone and her regular rhytms so thrown off.

And i liked it too.  Spending more time with her – and seeing her as genuinely needy, not just pushy and greedy – i’m starting to like her more, and even find her kinda sweet.

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Several of us pet sitters were in a seminar with a local vet who practices acupuncture with dogs (Erin Husted at the Charlotte St. Animal Hospital).

I had mentioned a story on the radio where they described reserach showing that people respond better to acupuncture when they expect it to help.  They called this a “placebo effect”, but not to say that the positive response was all in the person’s mind – just that a positive physical reaction was more likely when you expected it.

One of the other sitters said, “Well at least dogs can’t be cynical about whether something will help.  I said (thinking about my Buddy), “No, but there is such a thing as a ‘discouraged’ dog.”  The others looked puzzled and I said, “When a dog has consistently not had their needs met – maybe for attention and affection – they can kind of give up on getting these needs met.  They get discouraged.”

The very experienced sitter who had just made the comment about “not cynical” ruefully nodded her head up and down: “I guess you do see this.”

I’ve seen it – plenty.  When Buddy first came to me, he was a discouraged dog.  He didn’t look for attention or affection, because he didn’t expect to get it.  Within the first couple of months of starting to share space with me, this started to shift – he began, tentatively, to believe that he might actually get love and attention in greater measure.

I would say that Buddy is no longer a discouraged dog – discouragement is no longer the baseline from which he comes.  But I also would say that he still is “easily discouraged”.  He still spends some significant time moping – seeming, as I see it, kind of sad from being left alone.  Lucy, our neighbor dog, even though she gets much less attention than Buddy – and even when she also seems a little mopey – still seems (as I imagine what is going on inside that little doggie brain of hers) more positively expectant that something good may at any moment happen.

I would call her more resilient – less likely to move into discouragement.

When I come out the back door to take the dogs for a walk, I often bring out  my walking shoes and flop them down on the back step, a sure cue that I am getting ready for a walk. (I’ve even taken to changing my shoes around the corner in the living room, out of sight, when I am getting ready to leave, not take them for a walk – so as to not to give them false hopes.)  Or, when I am taking them for a walk, I may even use the magic phrase, “Let’s go for a walk.”

But I’m often kind of scattered and untogether – and at these times I’m prone to forgetting things.  So I may go back into the house to get somethingIi have forgotten – my little spiral writing pad, which i carry with me everywhere, or my cell phone if i am expecting a call.  Lucy stays expectant – she doesn’t start to give up hope about the cherished walk.  Buddy easily gives up.  I’ve learned to keep calling to him, things like, “I’m coming…stay there, I’m coming.”  This may help him hang in, but usually not for more than a minute.  Then he is likely to go to one of his favorite moping places, like back behind the bushes next to the house, flop down and kind of give up.

So Buddy is no longer a discouraged dog, but still is kind of easily discouraged.  I see this still gradually shifting – and hope sometimes that his tendency towards discouragement will eventually go away, but I think it may not.  That wounding from his early years of not getting what he needed from the people in his life just runs too deep.

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Sometimes, when Buddy is out in the yard (or even inside), he clearly is resting.  He looks content.  Other times he looks mopey.  I project on this look that he is a little sad, discouraged.  Maybe sad that he is alone, not getting attention from me.  I think that he has gone back into discouragement.

I see this also sometimes in Lucy, our neighbor dog, especially now that she comes down the hill from her yard all the time looking for me to take them for a walk.  She may see me moving around in the kitchen, or somehow know (as does Buddy sometimes) that i have roused myself from the bed and am up and about.  She gets all hopeful, but then – when i make no movement to come out the back door – gives up and mopes.

When Buddy first came to me, about 17 months ago, he moped all the time – almost literally all the time.  He does this a lot less these days – spends more time looking content, simply resting.  But he still goes there kind of a lot – and way less than Lucy.

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I knew it – I’ve known it since i first started getting to know Lucy.  But there is a part of me that doesn’t really like  it that i’m more like our speedy, intrusive, often slightly out of control neighbor hound dog than i am like my own sweet, laid back, mellow dog – so I’ve never paid attention to it.

Just about a half-hour ago, Buddy and i were walking back down the hill from Hal’s yard towards our house, and i was thinking about our bear encounters over the last couple of days.  (See my 8/11 post.)  Specifically i was thinking about how, two nights before, i had followed my usual late-night routine of sitting with Buddy out in our backyard (the last few nights in the beautiful moonlight) – even though bears had been in relatively close proximity to that very spot twice in the last 24 hours, the last time being just three hours earlier.

“Wasn’t that kind of reckless on my part?”, I asked myself.  That’s what caused the click.  i had, in that same post, described Lucy as “reckless-tending”.  “Oh shit, i thought – I’m Lucy, not Buddy.”  I’ve said many times over the last 17 months that Buddy is the perfect dog for me because his laid-back, mellow energy balances out my own more intense energy (different from my previous dog Bobbie, whose Border Collie intensity was just too much like my own intensity).

No wonder Lucy so often irritates me: she mirrors a part of me with which i have a love-hate relationship.  I guess i was more ready to recognize this fact at that particular moment because i had just been rehearsing/memorizing a poem which is about how my own headlong poor judgment has sometimes gotten me in trouble – a poem which itself, intentionally, has that same kind of risky, barely-under-control momentum.

(I very often, especially when i am preparing for a poetry performance, spend my walks with Buddy similarly rehearsing a poem – often out loud, when i think there are no neighbors in earshot.  Hey, so I suck at Zen – so sue me.)

I have often, over many years, described myself as counterphobic.  i see that i have reallybeen that way since childhood.  When something is scary to me, i am almost compelled to move towards it.  When, a few weeks ago, i thought i heard a bear in the woods, i just could not stop myself from (slowly, yes) moving in that direction.  I identify a lot with the movie character Poppie (in the wonderful recent movie Happy Go Lucky) who, in her commitment to helping people be happy, sometimes moves towards an unhappy person even when she knows that she placing herself at risk.  Moving towards the thing i fear somehow makes that fear more manageable.

So Lucy, i salute you.  You ain’t so much “goofy”, as i so often describe you, as you are intense and sometimes mindless of your own safety (and, ok, sometimes just kind of mindless – even, doggie that you are, more often so than me).  It’s not a bad way to be, nor even necessarily a good way to be – it’s just what we are.

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When i first got Buddy, it took a month for him to look me in the eye.  I was, at first, a complete stranger to him – he came to live with me about two hours after we first met.  He had been with his previous person for eight years – and she had a philosophy that Buddy did better if you didn’t give him too much attention.

Over the last 17 months, Buddy has progressively sought out my eyes more often and for longer duration.  I believe that he is trying to create a more intimate relationship with me: to know that i am really there for him, that i love him, that i am not going to go away.

And it only occurred to me today – goofball that I am – that at these times i need to take my glasses off, to let him better see my eyes.  When i did so today, Buddy went on a little binge of eye contact.  In between these bursts of looking deeply in my eyes, he didn’t just lean against me – he pushed himself against me.  He laid his head on my chest.  He gave my hand and leg little love bites.  He sighed deeply.  Sometimes it takes me forever to figure something out that is really kind of self-evident: if you’re gonna make eye contact, make your eyes available!  Goof.

A guy told me once that, as he was driving his 13 year old dog – riddled with cancer – to the animal hospital to be put to sleep, his beloved doggie friend sought out his eyes the entire drive.  He felt sure that it was his long-time companion’s way of saying goodbye.

For Buddy with me, it’s his way of saying hello.

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buddy blanket 002IMG_1931“Thanks for the offer dad… but the thunder just isn’t scaring me that much yet.”

When Buddy first came to me, he was absolutely traumatized by any sound of thunder – he only wanted to hide back in my bedroom (where he otherwise never went).  He would hyperventilate and stare vacantly into space, completely unresponsive to my presence if i tried to comfort him.  These days he almost never gets that freaked by thunder.  (I do sometimes lay a little “security blanket” over him – a trick i got out of some dog magazine and fantasize to be helpful.  It’s one of those times that we sure wish our dogs or very young children had words, so we could know what actually helps and what doesn’t.)

But a really interesting thing these days about Buddy and thunder is how much thunder it takes to scare him.  Used to be that any amount was too much.  But these days Buddy is both braver and more confident in general – and he really loves his new doghouse that i got for him a few months ago.  When thunder starts, i will go to the back door and call, “You wanna come in?”  Sometimes he immediately presents himself and other times there is no response.  I may even go around to the door of his doghouse and ask, “Do you wanna come in now?”  He may look at me, completely unperturbed.  That little outside home of his is all the security he needs these days from relatively distant thunder or even for relatively heavy rain.

So i say, “OK” and trot back to the front porch, where i have my laptop and am happily writing – and from which vantage point i personally enjoy a good thunderstorm.  Then there is a sharp, close crack of thunder and i say, “That’ll do it” – and find him right at the back door, more than ready to come in.

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Tonight, after having treats – nice stuff I feed him to get him to take his meds (for hip dyplasia – Omega-3, glucosamine, and an inti-inflammatory drug that i hope eventually to get him off of) – Buddy, as usual when treats are done, wanted to go back outside.  He went to the back door like usual when he wants to go out, but when i slid the screen door open, he just stood there.  Usually he does that if it’s raining or cold and he’s not really sure if he actually wants to go out after all.

But there was no reason like that for him to just be standing there.  I was tired and wanted to get through the dishes and stuff to get my butt to bed, so i guess my patience wasn’t all that great.  So i did something i have never done with Buddy – I gave him just the lightest tap on the butt with my shoe.  Oh boy, he tucked his butt under and almost jumped through the door – then turned around and looked at me, i think shocked and a little scared.  Well you can guess how totally crappy i felt.  I immediately ran out the door and gave him lots of reassurance, incuding rubbing his butt – and he said, “Apology accepted”.

Buddy’s last person got him from the pound at about six months, and feels sure that he had been physically mistreated before that – and probably by a man, based on how scared of them he was (and still was eight years later, when i got him).  And this extraordinary, totally unexpected reaction caused me to believe that he must have been kicked in the rear end.

How is it that this trauma, if my hypothesis is correct, is still lingering after nine years now in which i feel sure that he not been physically mistreated (slightly neglected by his last person, i think, but never harmed), still lingering?  They say that people who have been physically abused at early ages never completely heal.  I guess it is the same for dogs.  Lots of love and safety over the last 15 months have tremendously built up Buddy’s confidence and reduced his skittishness, though that scared startle reaction still shows up in a variety of ways, like his running away if i drop anything on the hard kitchen floor – and, if it’s something loud, really running away.

I’m prepared for him to always display some fearfulness at times, and to still need lots of reassurance when this happens.

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A friend was telling me the other day that she learns how to live from her dog.  I, as much as anybody, view my dog as a fabulous teacher – but i think that’s only half the story.

I said, “You know, dogs learn a lot about life from us, too.”  She looked puzzled.  “Yeah, dogs are a domesticated animal – that means that a lot of their potential can only be tapped through their relationship with a human.  Your dog learns richer, more satisfying ways to be a dog from her close relationship with you.”

“Wow, I never thought about it that way.”

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My dog loves a summer night.

His flat, black-button nose twitches overtime.  His head swivels from side to side, peering into the darkness.  He smells things that i don’t smell, hears things that i cant hear, sees things that i don’t see.  He is so alive!

I remember a period in my late teens and very early 20’s, when i was so flush with new freedom from the limits of my family and full of my new capacities that a summer nights could be for me a wonderland – spreading in all directions with space and possiblity.

These days i often feel very turned-on to be alive, but summer nights seldom affect me the same way – there is not often the kind of magic that seems to be available to Buddy almost every night.

Once again Buddy points, for me, the way.

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I’m sitting this week for a sweet little dog named Joey.  Only he was not at first very sweet in my direction.

Little Joey the American Eskimo didn’t think he liked me when i first came to visit his house.  His mom said, “He wants to reject you as an intruder, but – look – his tail is wagging, even as he is barking at you.”  Part of him thought i might be an enemy, while another part of him really did want to trust and like me – wanted me to be a good part of his world, rather than a threat.  But – as his mom was giving me the tour of the house and instructions for the care of Joey, three cats and some outdoor plants – Joey kept going back and forth between warming up to me and then going back into alarm-barking mode.

The second time i came, the morning after his person had left town for a week, he barked as i came in and for maybe a minute after i got there, then settled down and enjoyed my presence.  When i came back that evening, he barked as i was working the key in the lock, then quickly adopted me.  Since then he gets happy from the sound of my voice as i come up the walk, calling to him.  He follows me around the house like a puppy: if i use the bathroom, he patiently waits just outside the door – or follows me in, rude little thing.  Outside, it takes the merest call to him as i walk him on his leash – more a suggestion than a command – for him to come back in my direction.

What, for a dog, is the process of deciding that a new person is friend rather than foe?  Part of him wanted to like  me from the start, even as another part felt threatened.  How do they let go of their exclusion of the other, their instinctive need to sound the alert against an intruder – to then include me, to decide that they want me to belong.  How did he decide that he liked me?  Sure, i was giving him some good things, but it feels like its gotta be something more than that.  His little doggie brain decided that i was good, not bad.  How?

How do we make that shift with regards to other people?  Why is it sometimes so hard?

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Every night, before i go to bed, i tuck Buddy in: i sit next to him and give him a big dose of love, usually for about 10-15 minutes, sometimes longer (especially if he is tense, traumatized by thunder – or, on a couple of horrible occasions, by having been attacked and terrorized by an aggressive dog – or otherwise seems to need it more than usual).

I started this practice shortly after he came to me, about 15 months ago.  He was, back then, so scared and depressed that i wanted him to feel especially safe and loved before he slept all night.  These days, he doesn’t “need” it as much as he did back in those early, traumatized days – but he still gets so ecstatically happy, and then so wonderfully peaceful, that i continue the practice.  I do it no matter how late i come in or how early i have to get up.  In 15 months, i have only missed a few nights.

Frequently, as Buddy gets very peaceful and relaxed, he will let out a big, loud, deep sigh – a sure sign that he has really let go.  Sometimes he will fall peacefully asleep – and i usually continue to stroke him for a few more minutes, believing that when he is sleeping the love and reassurance goes straight into his unconscious, creating a deep foundation of security and contentment.  Sometimes i sing to him.

Many months ago, i got it that this little ritual is as good for me as it is for Buddy.  i get peaceful, i feel wrapped in love.  You can’t give love without it moving through you first.  Sometimes i picture that Life is stroking, reassuring, loving me the same way that i am giving these things to Buddy.

I think I’ll keep it up.

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A couple of months after i got into the practice of “tucking Buddy in” before i went to bed, i experimented with a new wrinkle.  I thought, why do i always sit up above Buddy?  What might happen if i lay right down with him?  So i tried lying behind him, facing the same way he is lying, and spooning: I cuddle in real tight, like i imagine puppies doing – or dogs that are very tight – and throw my arm over him.

The first couple of weeks i tried this, Buddy just couldn’t believe how wonderful this felt: I imagined his little doggie brain thinking, “It can’t be possible – after all those years of getting just stingy little bits of love – that this is really happening to me.”  One night, he rolled over in my direction, looked deep into my eyes, and then gently placed both of his paws on my chest.  (Now who was melting?)  Another time, he placed one paw on my chest and the other up over my shoulder, like he was giving me a big doggie hug.

These days Buddy doesn’t respond so dramatically to spooning.  I think that it no longer feels to him so unbelievably wonderful. I think that for him, now, it just feels normal.

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Buddy hasn’t always liked Lucy – fact is, she can be irritating as hell.

Lucy is a three year old hound, full of boundless energy – fast as the wind and light on her feet like a ballerina.  But that’s where the similarity to a ballerina ends.  More aware of her own enthusiasm than she is of her environment, she doesn’t know her own speed and athletic power.  She crashes into Buddy and me, sits on us and frequently plays too rough for Buddy, precipitating yelps from him and profanity from me.

Buddy has learned, over the last 15 months, to enjoy rough play with other dogs – but he is essentially more delicate.  He will never step on your toes, much less crash into you.  For the first few months we lived here, he clearly found Lucy a pain in the ass and woud not give her the time of day.

But Buddy loves the company of other dogs and these days (not in earlier days) loves to play doggie wrestling and chasing games.  And, since moving to our new area, for doggie play Lucy is the only game in town.  So, a few months ago he began to soften to her – and now he flat-out loves her.

But Lucy is gone with her family for several days of vacation – and Buddy is like bereft: there’s no zest, no spring in his step, when we go for walks he hardly does more than mope along with me.  When Lucy goes back up the hill with us, the two sniff everything.  They go crashing back into the woods at full throttle: even though Buddy’s nine year old full throttle is nothing like Lucy’s three year old, long-legged, game-chasing hunting dog’s full throttle, he chases gamely after her.

Even on his own, Buddy will happily chase a squirrel any day of the week – even when he is having a bad day, even in the dog days of summer, even when the Lucy thrill is gone, he’ll always chase a squirrel when he sees one.  But Lucy sees them a lot further away than Buddy does, so that’s a lot more squirrels to chase – and from a lot longer distance.

So the last couple of days my old Buddy is acting a lot less like his pup self and more like his old man self.  I, for my part, have been intentionally activating my pup self: cuddling him a lot more enthusiastically and wrestling with him a lot more robustly.

That’s really good for me: after a long day at work, it brings me back alive – I feel some zest, get the spring back in my step.

And I see the light come back in Buddy’s eyes.

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Cleo did not like men.

A three year old Golden Retriever, Cleo lived with Jo and her 7 year old daughter Phoebe – each of them awesome people.  But smart people sometimes make stupid choices, and Phoebe’s dad had not been a nice man.  He at least terrorized all three of them – and i think also sometimes hit them – for years, until about a year before Jo had finally split with him and this time made it stick.  But all three of them carried scars from those bad years.

At this point, Cleo actually hated men: partly, I’m sure, because of what this guy had done to her – but also, I believe, because of what he had done to Jo and Phoebe.  And I’m a man.  My wife Sandy had a very strong friendship with Jo and i would occasionally try also coming over to Jo and Phoebe’s apartment.  Cleo always reacted the same way to my entrance into the apartment, the same way she responded to any man’s presence: she barked ferociously at me and would not stop until i left.  So i finally stopped going.

But at some point Jo and Phoebe needed to move in with friends – and Cleo was just too much for that family and home to accommodate.  Cleo had to go.  Jo and Phoebe were extraordinarily conflicted: the move was something that they really needed to make, but they both loved Cleo tremendously.  They would let other families take Cleo for trial visits, but again and again it either did not work out for that family or Jo came up with some reason why she thought it wouldn’t work.  She needed to let Cleo go, but couldn’t.

All this instability was causing a lot of stress for Cleo.  She became skittish and withdrawn and developed a bad case of mange.  Sandy also loved Cleo – and Cleo loved her.  So Sandy convinced me that we should give Cleo a try, to see if it could possibly work for her to live with us.  We were moving to the country, our dog Darby seemed lonely – it seemed like a great idea, except that Cleo hated men and seemed to hate me.  But we decided to take her for the weekend and give it a try anyway.

Friday came: Jo and Phoebe were leaving town and Sandy was at work (I had a flexible grad student schedule), so i needed to be the one to pick Cleo up.  This seemed not very strategic, but we couldn’t come up with another plan.  Sandy and i figured that it might be a good, direct test: if this didn’t work, then Cleo probably would not work for our little family.

When i arrived at their door, I felt some real trepidation: what might make this encounter any different from every previous encounter i had had with Cleo?  Why ever would she be willing to leave with me?  And if this trial visit did not work, like all the previous ones had not worked – and moving day was drawing close – then what was going to happen to her?

I knocked on the door of their apartment and after a few moments Jo opened it.  And Cleo – who was following right after Jo – came out the door, swiveled to face the same way i was facing, and sat down, right next to me.  No barking, no trying to scare me away.  She planted herself and quietly sat right there – and did not move.  She barely left my side all weekend – and thus began a long, wonderful friendship.

I will never quite understand how Cleo knew that i was her best shot and finding a good home.  But she did.

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Sometimes my needs and Buddy’s are very much in sync.

When i woke this morning, i had a piece of writing formulating itself in my head.  If i don’t catch this stuff when it’s fresh, it can get all kinds of fuzzy before i get back to it.  And the muse can get cranky if i don’t honor what she is giving me: she can get stingy about sending me more.

But i also realized, having just gotten up this morning, that my head was pretty much still full of cotton.  So, instead of going straight to my laptop on my front porch, i took Buddy – and me – for a walk.  i knew that my writing would go better if i first got my energy moving around and my head more clear.  So i bargained with the muse that i would take my little spiral notebook with me and jot notes as Buddy and i walked – not the best arrangement with the writer in me, but good enough.  And fortunately our little walk up the hill does not require me to put my physical body at risk by crossing streets with my nose down in my notebook.

But, when Buddy and i come back from a walk, i also like to plop on the ground in the backyard and give him some love – especially when he’s been outside and me inside all night.  And he loves and wants it.  And it’s good for me to take this time out, this cuddle time (especially as a break, when i have been working).  And Buddy’s doggie neighbor-friend Dorie is out of town and Buddy’s lonely.  And i knew i would have to face (or at least feel in the back of my head) those big mournful brown eyes as he watched me disappear back into the house.

But at this point my needs trumped Buddy’s.  This piece of writing was now getting clearer and more insistent.  So i went and gave Buddy a kiss on the nose (he loves those) and said, “Back atcha later, Bud”.  And trusted that he would be just fine not getting this extra love that he wanted (and, i could make a case, needed) – and that our relationship would be just as solid when i did get back to him, maybe even in some ways stronger from his heightened longing for me.

Hey, the reality is that much of the time (seems to be all the time for me), we don’t have time for everything we want to do.  Our most important intimate relationships cope with that reality all the time.  My best human friend Lynn had left a voice mail yesterday afternoon that said, “Nothing big, I’m just looking forward to catching up” – and i have been so immersed in this same writing project that i have not yet called her back.  I have, consciously, bargained with that relationship.  Did i not bargain with the muse this morning when i told her that i would get back to her later?

It’s good for me to not only be willing to bargain with buddy – even though he doesn’t know jack about bargaining, and only knows what he wants/needs in the moment.  But at least as important is to keep my perspective – to remember that this is actually no big deal.  Not, “Hey, he’s just a dog” (it’s amazing to me how deeply that societal maxim is still implanted even in my brain – i had heard it rolling around on this very walk), but simply “I’m choosing for me this time – and it’s no big deal, it’s just how reality, how all relationships work sometimes.”

Sometimes my needs trump Buddy’s.

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When i am spending quiet “quality” time with my dog – sitting with him in the back yard or on the floor in the house, “lovin’ on him” as they like to say in these Appalachian mountains or “making out with him” as my friend Lynn likes to say – i believe that i am doing more than simply giving him love and attention.

I really believe that i am helping him to “recharge his batteries” or even to “make a deposit in his emotional/energetic bank account”.  In my way of seeing it, it goes beyond even making him a happier dog – which i have no question that this cuddle time definitely does.  It sure looks to me (I see the evidence in how he then behaves) that this doggie/daddy time leaves him more confident, more resourceful and more resilient.  Rather than becoming a whoosy little lap dog from all this love, i see him sometimes immediately becoming stronger, more inquisitive and exploratory, more enthusiastic in his play with the neighbor dog – just bolder all around.

This process of “charging his batteries” – or even more if you think of it as “deposits in his emotional/energetic bank account” – may be more significant or clearly impactful with a traumatized, shy, skittish, insecure dog like my Buddy.  It may be particularly less important with a dog that is more strongly instinct-driven and less relationally oriented (less focused on close bonding with humans – which is clearly a very big driver for Buddy.)  He may just need it more than some other dogs.

But i think it is a useful way to think about our connecting with all of our dogs: giving them love is more than giving them love – it is, in a real and direct way, making them more healthy, more functional, maybe even more intelligent.

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My dog Buddy – almost certainly abused during his first months of life, before being adopted out of the pound around age 6 months, and then subtly neglected for another 8 years – has tremendous needs for love and attention, needs for which he only recently has gotten confident enough to directly ask.  And it has been completely clear that there is huge payoff from giving him this love and attention, some of this payoff totally self-serving for me: a happier, more lively, more contented dog is a helluva lot better companion than the mopey, depressed dog i adopted over a year ago.

But how much love and attention is enough?  Buddy is not actually a bottomless pit in this area.  Even as he has, over the last 15 months, learned to drink this love in deeper and deeper – to revel in it, to sink into it – he also has developed more capacity to be filled up: to decide that he has enough and now wants to just go lie in the sun or explore the yard or go back to one of his other favorite spots.

But sometimes he’s still not done with cuddle time when I am.  So how do i decide when to stop?  Unless there is some unusual circumstance (he has been traumatized by thunder or an aggressive dog or a trip to the vet or groomer), I usually choose for me.  I first notice a shift in me from being totally present to him – immersed in the sweetness of our connection, the beautiful afternoon in our backyard, etc. – to being more distracted or restless.  I know at this point that my time on the meter has almost expired.  I usually will hang in some moments longer – and on those special occasions when i realize he has even more need for reassurance, maybe significantly longer.

But finally something shifts in me and i know that i am done.  Frequently the key indicator is that my attention has shifted elsewhere: to a call i need to make or a task that is sitting on my desk or a need to feed myself.  I virtually never try to push myself beyond this point: it’s not good for me and it’s not good for my relationship with Buddy.  It won’t serve either of us if i lay guilty expectations on myself to take care of him when i need to be taking care of me.  It definitely won’t serve either of us if i start to resent his demands on me.

On rare occasions, he will make such a melodramatic attempt to keep me – throwing a paw up over me or even crying a little, stuff that this unassertive dog almost never does – that i will stay a few extra moments.  But finally i know that this just isn’t working for me any more: he has needs, but i do, too.  I may give him a few extra kisses as i leave, but leave i do.

And often i will actually say out loud, “I got other stuff to do, man.”

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My counselor likes to say that much of the process of healing involves “unfreezing”.  The organism’s response to overwhelming trauma – when there is no possibility of fight or flight – is to freeze.  The deer in the headlights, the rabbit frozen in the field.  Some animal behaviorists speculate that there is a kind of grim adaptive value in the ability of animal that has been caught by the predator to go semi-unconscious, to kind of black out.

When my little Buddy came to live with me about 15 months ago, he was in many ways a fairly frozen ( 8 1/2 year old) pup.  The course of our time together has in many ways been a process of him gradually melting.

There had never seemed to be much question that he had been abused in his first six months of life, before his previous person adopted him from a shelter.  And that person for some reason had a belief that he did better if you didn’t give him too much attention.  So, after probably experiencing the overwhelming trauma of abuse as a pup, he then dealt for many years with the insidious trauma of marginal neglect.  No chance to really heal there.  Thinking of his development this way helped make sense of the fact that – with no actual abuse since he was first adopted – he was still absolutely terrified of men.

If the melting of early trauma is thought of a process of awakening from a bad dream, there are still going to be times when we go back into the dream.  If the path Buddy has followed over these last many months has been one of learning to accept and even, finally, ask for love, it seems that sometimes the old dream of love scarcity takes over.

Buddy more and more luxuriates in my loving attention – sometimes even seeming, in the moment, to get kind of filled up…enough that he seems happy and content to then move off to explore, lie in the sun or just do whatever.  But other times it seems that the bad dream has more taken over, that he momentarily is just not able to let love in.

Tonight was a classic example.  He asked to come in the house – something he rarely does in this nice summer weather, when he wants to be outside almost 24/7.  This usually is a signal that he is wanting to be with me even more than he wants to be out in the back yard.  But when i plopped on the floor next to his bed in order to give him some attention, he came over to let me pet him for only a minute or so before moving a few feet away, plopping on the floor in his classic moping pose – looking away from me.

I knew right away that this was not his contented form of separation.  He was clearly mopy (dare i say sad, or even depressed?  he was definitely depressed when he first came to me.)  It sure seemed to me that some frozenness had taken him over.  So i pursued him: i slid across the floor to sit right up next to him and resume petting him.  For maybe three minutes he completely ignored me.  Then he let out one of those deep sighs that indicate that he is relaxing.  In just another minute or two he was completely engaged with me – repeatedly throwing his head up towards me as he does when he is excited about connecting with me, and giving me huge eye contact.  He then deeply received my petting attention, occasionally letting out little moans of pleasure.  When, ten minutes later, i started to disengage, he kept throwing a paw on me in the classic doggie gesture of “No, don’t stop yet!”

It’s hard to watch Buddy go back and forth, heal and then regress, come out into the light and then go back in the deep weeds.  But then it’s hard to watch myself go through this process, too.

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In the early months of being with me, Buddy was so protective of his reunion time with me (I had just gotten home and we were cuddling on the porch or in the yard) that he would chase his doggie friends right out of the yard.  !0 minutes before they were playing together happily, they come over to play again and surprise!  “Get out of my yard – I want my dad all to myself.”

So much has changed.  These days – same situation, we’re sitting in the grass with Buddy lying between my legs, lapping up the love – if his hound dog neighbor friend Dorie comes over to sniff him, he gives her little kisses.  I think he’s just way more secure these days.

And there’s a new wrinkle.  When Dorie is nuzzling him, he tries to initiate the “Lets chew on each other’s faces, ears and necks” game – without leaving the comfort of my lap!  He focuses on the chewing, but makes no attempt to get up and play the game the way it’s meant to be played (either both up or the two of them alternately flopping over on their back – but not stationary) – then throws his head back towards me: “Don’t go away, now – I want you, too.” And so it goes – back and forth – until he either decides to get up and really play the game or Dorie breaks the game off because he’s not playing it right.

It’s all pretty funny.

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When i first got Buddy, 16 months ago, he was not ready to trust – or to fully let pleasure in.  These days, he sinks deeper and deeper into the joy of being loved.  One way i can tell that he is really, really happy from being petted – as he lies there very quiet, just taking it in – is that he licks his chops!  He especially likes to have his floppy ears rubbed – and this almost always elicits this chop licking.  Such a supposedly classic doggie behavior, but i’ve never seen him respond this way to food or treats.

I’ve mentioned this behavior to vets and other dog owners, and they don’t recognize it.  Hey, us humans each find our own pathways into pleasure, into peace, into contentment – I guess this is true of dogs, too.

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Diogi was Anita’s dog.

I’m embarassed to admit that, 10 years later, I remember absolutely nothing about Diogi – but then Anita’s beauty upstaged Diogi’s whateverness in a walk.  Anita was second generation Chinese-American.  I for a long time never got around to asking Anita just what “Diogi” meant in Chinese, though i assumed it had to be something interesting.  But, like I said, with Anita around I was never all that interested in this dog, about whom I do actually remember that he was medium-sized.  (But all the dogs in our little posse were medium-sized to large – little dogs just did not make it in this group of “big dogs”.)  When i finally did get around to asking where the name came from, Anita played real cagey: “Think about it.” “Huh?” “No, really, think about it.” “Think about what?  I don’t know any Chinese.”  “No, think about ‘d'”.  I was still completely clueless.  “Think about ‘d’ and ‘o'”.  I don’t remember if she had to get to, “Think about ‘d’ and ‘o’ and ‘g'”, but she might as well have, for how completely, hilariously, put on i realized i had been.

Even the writer and word-lover in me had not seen the furry for the Chinese.

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This little Zen maxim is one of my favorite sentences – it proves true time and time again.

We live in the country: Buddy gets to run free pretty much as much as he wants.  It’s in many ways an ideal life for a dog – and for a dog’s person.

In the winter, Buddy seems quite content to come in most nights.  But in the summer it’s a different story: he wants to be outside basically 24/7.  On occasion, he does want to come in at night, even in good weather.  Sometimes i think he wants to be close to me more than he wants to be outside.

But other times the protective dad in me thinks he ought to be inside: “It’s been raining today, it’s damp outside – and he does have that arthritic hip…”  But who am i, really, to make this call for him?  What do i know about the real trade-offs for him, about the price he pays from sleeping inside?

One summer, my wife and i spent 7 weeks camping and backpacking out west.  Our first night home, sleeping inside a building felt very weird.  When i lived up in the mountains, there were very few mosquitoes and i left my front and back doors open wide all day and sometimes into the warm summer night.  I loved the sense of a very porous boundary between outdoors and indoors.  When it started getting colder and i needed to start closing my doors, i felt a loss.  And then i moved down lower in the country, where there are mosquitoes, and i need to keep my screen doors closed.  They let in good air, but it’s still more of a boundary.  I feel a loss.  On these summer days, i often spend really the whole day outside – some of it sitting at my laptop on my lovely front porch, facing only woods and sky.  When, in the evening, i bring my laptop inside for better light, i feel a loss.  It actually feels strange being inside, after being outside all day.

What do i know of Buddy’s genuine need to be out in the night air, smelling the night smells and listening to the night sounds, sleeping on the earth?  How powerfully does all this charge his batteries?  Is all this more healthy for him than coming in out of the damp?  He may be “domesticated”, but he still lives in the world of animal instincts to an extent that i can not estimate or understand.

I know that sometimes it is the responsible thing to make choices for your pet that they do not know how to make for themselves.  Sometimes our rational big picture does actually trump their instincts.  But when?  And how do we know?

I know that outdoors forgives indoors – but i think that Buddy knows this better than i ever will.

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My dog Buddy is a medium-sized dog – 45 pounds at his fighting weight – but in relationship to tiny dogs he is definitely a big dog.  And he basically has no use for little dogs.  He grew up with big, much older dogs – and I think that little dogs are just not on the screen for him.

When a neighbor pup would jump all over him, frantically trying to get Buddy to play, but really in the most annoying fashion, Buddy would just keep walking as if he was not there.  When my friends Lynn and Fred stayed with us for five days, their little dog Attie tried in every way he knew to seduce Buddy into playing with him, but Buddy absolutely would not give him the time of day.

But Lucy, the three year old hound who lives next door, maybe a few pounds heavier and much stronger – now she’s another “big dog”.  Over the last few months she and Buddy have gotten very tight.  They wrestle together, play chase games all around our big yard together.  And they both adore it when the three of us go for walks back up the hill together.  They smell the same things and pee in the same places.  If one of them goes charging back into the woods, the other is right behind.

Buddy and Lucy playing.

Buddy and Lucy playing.

And they love to run next to each other – fast, haunch to haunch – as dogs who love each other sometimes do.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch.  Lucy’s long, strong hound dog’s legs are way faster than Buddy’s: I think she must intentionally slow her pace a bit so that they can stay in unison.

When Max, my friends Bob and Annie’s little Bichon, came to stay with us for a few days – well, he was a little dog.  Buddy completely ignored him.  Max immediately loved Buddy: Buddy’s sweet, laid-back energy never threatened him, and he never felt a need to play tough.   When we went for walks, Max – like a little brother – tried to follow him everywhere, even if he couldn’t always keep up.  Buddy ignored him.

And my neurotic  Buddy took it very hard that another dog was in his space.  He didn’t just ignore – he moped.  He became clingy and needy and – when I couldn’t give him my 100% of my attention or couldn’t hide from him that I was also giving love to Max – went off to a corner and sulked.  Never any aggression – just woundedness.

Tough little Max did not like Lucy.  Her wild energy was just too in-your-face for Max.  (Laid-back Buddy had for many months also ignored Lucy: I don’t think her randiness threatened Buddy, just annoyed him.)  Max would bark at Lucy if he even saw her about 100 yards across our two yards.  Non-aggressive Lucy kept trying to sniff Max or even to get him to play, but Max would have none of it.  But the three dogs would often walk up the hill with me and sometimes Max was so involved in exploring the terrain or following Buddy that he forgot to be mean to Lucy.

One night Lucy was inside her house and it was just me and Buddy and Max walking up the hill in the darkness.

There’s another “big dog” from down the road that sometimes comes to visit, and he and Buddy like each other a lot.  They chase each other around and have a good old time.  When this down-the-road dog (I don’t know is name – let’s call him Midnight, because he is solid black) appeared suddenly in front of us – hard at first to make out in the matching darkness – he and Buddy greeted each other happily, all wagging tails.  But Max the Magnificent was not pleased: he tried to attack this new dog.  With me holding Max’s leash, he never got closer than about ten feet from Midnight – who, not an aggressive animal, just jumped back.

Then Buddy did an extraordinary thing: he charged Midnight, growling ferociously – and basically chased him right off the property.  He then came running back and ran right up to Max in a completely unprecedented friendly way.  The only way I could make sense out of this whole scenario was that Buddy had gotten protective of this little visiting runt who was trying to mix it up with a much larger dog.  When – after chasing Midnight for a couple hundred yards, until he was well off our property – Buddy came running directly back up to Max, I read his behavior as saying, “You OK?”

Why the switch?  Why did Buddy, after a couple of days of completely ignoring – and obviously resenting – Max, apparently come to his defense?

I think that – annoying and disruptive and threatening and generally useless as Buddy regarded Max to be – Max had still become part of the pack.  And, when there was any possibility that Midnight might mix it up with little Max, Buddy – who liked Midnight much more than he liked Max – showed  very clear loyalty to the pack: Midnight had to go.

Once that amazing little scenario had finished playing out, Buddy went completely back to ignoring Max.  “I’ll protect you if I have to: even if you are a totally annoying, uselessly small-dog part of the pack, you still have become part of the pack – one of us.  Now go away, kid, you bother me.”

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