Thursday, March 29, 2012

Heinz-57 Part II: And the (DNA) Survey SAAAYS...

Thanks to everyone here and on Facebook who took a shot at which dog breeds went into making mutt-tastic Inja. Your guesses included:

German Shepherd:

 Catahoula Leopard Dog:

Some kind of sighthound (ie, Greyhound):

Australian Cattle Dog:

Egyptian Pharaoh Dog:

Labrador Retriever:

Rhodesian Ridgeback:

(This would account for the stripes...)

If you remember, this is what Inja looks like:

...and according to the Wisdom Panel, her actual DNA says... (drumroll please)

25% German Shepherd:

25% Samoyed:


25% Bullmastiff:

and 25% mixed breed, with the most likely suspect (at 18% probability) the Plott Hound:


With her ears, no argument about the Shepherd. Bullmastiff seems a bit of a stretch, but it could account for her laid-back persona and the brindle. I can definitely see Plott Hound not only in the brindle, but in her lean, athletic build. It's a breed I never would've guessed. Plotts are bear-hunting dogs from Appalachia, and I knew a ton of them when I lived in Tennessee. I have met a few in Oregon, so it's certainly possible.

But what about that Samoyed? I have to say, I've never seen a Sammie without its coat, so maybe there's more of a resemblance than first meets the eye. And a sweet Sammie just might be where Inja gets her gentle, easygoing nature.

DNA breed tests are a pretty recent development, so while they're fun to do -- especially in a dog like Inja, who routinely stumps even the most expert-y of dog experts -- I'm taking the results with a grain of salt. Anyway, whoever her ancestors were, nothing changes the fact that she's our one-of-a-kind, adorable girl.

What do you think? If you have a mutt, would you want to see what shakes out of the family tree?

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Heinz 57 Challenge

Our German Shepherd, Roxie, has been stealing the limelight lately with her antics. But today, it's our other dog's turn. Meet Inja:

When we met her as a 12-week-old brindle baby, our first question was, “What is she?” For the past 10 years, that's still the first question everyone asks. And then--since we don't know the answer--everyone ventures his own guess. Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, dog trainers, dog lovers of all stripes have taken their best shot at figuring her out. 

Her Humane Society papers listed her as a “terrier-x.”  As far as personality, Inja is a teensy bit shy. Loves water...a smidgen of Lab? Does the fact that she crouches in the grass to stalk our other dog mean a Border Collie or Cattle Dog snuck in there somewhere? 

If so, I regret to say Inja didn’t get any of the herding-breed smarts. Life for her is pretty, um...simple. We don't mind. She may not ever get into medical school, but she’s the sweetest, calmest, most easygoing dog we’ve ever had. In fact, her nickname when she was little was the Practically Perfect Puppy. And she grew up to be the Practically Perfect Dog.

Which we were perfectly satisfied with. But recently, we got the chance to peek at her DNA with a test called the Wisdom Panel. I'll tell you the results...but first, you have to guess. Go ahead, take your best shot. Everyone else has!*

*For the analytical among you, here's her stats: weight, 55 lb;  height, about the size of a smallish Labrador.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Writing and Fear

So you sit down to write a blog post. That was several hours ago. Since then you've checked your email several times and Facebook an embarrassing number of times and played a dozen games of solitaire (various types) and this weird matching game for small children called Purble Place which came with Windows and you not only played it, you tried to beat your own personal record, which says something about how you've been spending your time and the something is not complimentary.

You're a writer. You're a published writer. You should be writing, not gunning to find the other baker's tile to match the one you already found which will hugely boost your score.

This is the thing, though: Purble Place is idiotic but the rules are simple and clear and you know them, which, let's be frank, is not the case with writing and even less so with publishing and sometimes you get tired of feeling like you're a shoe salesman at a snake convention. Snakes slithering past, giving you that look. Wow, is that chick lost or clueless or what.

Because you're starting to think maybe the snakes are right. Maybe you've been kidding yourself. Wasting your time. Maybe nobody wants anymore what you have to offer.

Maybe the explanation is just that simple.

And that's how fear begins. Whispering in your ear so that despite all your best intentions (today, I will figure out ten different ways to tackle that problem scene in Chapter 6, today I will brainstorm fifty scenarios for the second book in the series, today I will come up with a smashing idea for a new novel) you end up back at Purble Place hunting for the damned baker. And you decide the solution is to buckle down and work harder but you're setting yourself up, you see, you're walking right into fear's trap. Because naturally the next thing you wonder is:

What if I work as hard as I possibly can...what if I turn myself inside-out from the effort...and it still isn't good enough? What then?

And fear cackles in triumph: Why, then, you're a failure. Game, set, and match, fear grinning at you with the silver trophy in its rotten hands.  

So back to Purble Place you go. Accomplishing nothing. On the other hand, nothing is at stake. Oh, you're still failing, don't kid yourself about that. But how much nicer to fail when you know you haven't given it your absolute utmost! This way you can still say, I could've made it. I could've been successful. If I'd had more (check all that apply):

___a better imagination
___a better agent
___a better publisher
___that writing software everyone else has but it's only available for the Mac and who has the money to buy a new Mac? Not me.  
___other (please explain in the space below)

See? You might have done fabulously. It's like a little portrait of the you that could have been. You can keep it close, as a comfort, and pull it out at parties and show people. See? you'll say, with a sigh. I would've been marvelous, if only.

If only you hadn't been so afraid. Because time isn't the problem, or your agent, or your lack of writing software. The problem is that you're terrified that you'll go to the well and find nothing but barren rock. No solution to Chapter 6. No second book in the series. No ideas for a new book. You'll have run dry and all you have to offer are the same old Uggs and Mary Janes and the snakes are slithering past and you're done, you're toast. Buh-bye.

The solution? You already know. There's no magic here. You go to the damn well. You dig deep, as deep as you can. You go back and back and back and you keep digging. Yes, you might fail. Better that, than failing for certain from a timid, wretched half-heartedness.

Of course, you might not fail at all. That's the other big risk, of course. Success.

Probably best to be afraid of just one thing at a time.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Roxie Goes to BAT

A friend of mine told me that once in a while, she pines for a dog. She misses having one, and she wants her young son to experience the same joys she did growing up with a canine buddy.

Then she thinks of my dog Roxie. And just like that, she said, she's cured.

Mitch and I joke that Roxie has been more work and worry than all our other dogs combined. It's one of those jokes that's not really funny, because it's true. I'll be honest: the first few weeks after we brought Roxie home, I didn't love her. Worse: I wasn't sure I even liked her. This dog, with all her unexpected issues, wasn't what I'd envisioned. She wasn't what I'd wanted. I was prepared for training; I wasn't prepared for an unpredictable, socially embarrassing, hugely stressful project. And I hadn't the slightest clue how to make things better.

Enter dog trainer and overwhelming force for good, Allison. When she told us Roxie has leash reactivity, we asked: Is there anything we can do for that? What we really meant was: Are we ever going to get our lives back? 

Allison is a pro with people as well as dogs. I'm sure she noted the glaze of desperation in our eyes, the edge of hysteria in our voices.

We can help her, she told us. And then she introduced us to BAT.

BAT--Behavior Adjustment Training--was developed by Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, WA. The premise is pretty simple. A reactive dog like Roxie gets anxious approaching other dogs on leash.  Barking and lunging makes the other dog go away, which eases her fear.* What BAT does is teach the dog a different behavior to get the same result.

It didn't take Roxie long to learn that if she simply looked away from the other dog, we immediately retreated out of sight. Not only did she get the same reward--the source of her anxiety disappearing--but by staying calm, she also earned highly delectable treats.** Now, Roxie may have issues, but she ain't dumb. And she luuurves her treats. She improved so fast, we became BAT junkies. On our daily walks, instead of avoiding other dogs, I actually started seeking them out so that we could practice. The first time Roxie successfully passed another dog across the street without barking, I about busted with pride. The way I bragged about her later, you'd think my dog had single-handedly saved a small village from ravening werewolves.

Because by then--and we're talking only weeks, not months--Roxie had truly become my dog. BAT is a dance of trust between canine and human. In learning the steps to that dance, I stopped seeing Roxie as a bundle of problems and instead started appreciating how smart she is. How sweet, how much she wants to please. How fun she is to play with, and how finely attuned she is to my smallest move.

Even more importantly, I let go of the dog of my imagination. The dog we might have had instead, the easy dog with no issues. How unfair to living breathing Roxie, to compare her to that dog. So I opened the door and I let that imaginary perfect dog run away. If you're lucky, maybe you'll find him.

Of course it hasn't been all kibble and biscuits. Sometimes it seems for every step forward, we slide half a step back. We joke (another not-so-funny ha-ha) that someone gave Roxie a list of dog vices, and she's diligently working her way through every single one. Digging: check. Cat-harassing: check. Random senseless destruction: check. (Exhibit A, below). We still have frustrations and not-so-great days.

But on our 2-mile morning runs, her going ballistic is a thing of the past. Other dogs are met with an interested look, then she turns to me for praise and a treat. Her fearfulness and anxiety are hugely diminished. Instead, she meets the world head-on, ears up and eager. Watching her bloom into confidence has been worth every hour of BAT, every class, every training walk. In the past year, Roxie has discovered that she's braver than she knew. That there's nothing to be afraid of. And that a dog's life is actually pretty fun.

Especially when feather pillows are involved.

For more information on BAT and other positive, reward-based training methods, visit Grisha Stewart's website. Next up for Roxie, her hardest challenge yet: group walks with other leash-reactive dogs. It'll be an adventure!

*A leash-reactive dog looks like he'll rip other dogs to pieces if given the chance. But in most dogs, the behavior is caused by anxiety, not aggression. Like Roxie, many of these dogs are darlings off-leash.

**Key for Roxie was finding a treat she couldn't resist. For her, that's chicken. She only gets it when she responds calmly to other dogs on our walks; we never use it for anything else. That keeps it super-special. And surprisingly economical. Some processed treats at the pet stores are $7 to $15 for just half a pound...or less! In our area, chicken tenders run about $7.50 for 2-1/2 lbs. Microwave 3 frozen tenders for 5-6 minutes until fully cooked, then dice into pea-sized bits. Voila! A treat worth being brave for.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

National Train Your Dog Month, or: Baby, You're Just Getting Started

One year, one week, and three days ago (not that anyone's counting), we brought a new dog into our lives. Our lives have yet to go back to normal. In fact, normal is no longer on the menu. It's like saying, Just wait until this hurricane passes by, and then we'll get back to our tea and scones. Oh, wait... Crap, there went the house.

So when I heard that January is National Train Your Dog Month, I cracked up laughing. Train Your Dog Month? Around here, 2011 was Train Your Dog Year. And now that we're in 2012?

Welcome to Year Two.

I've been training my own dogs since I was 14. I once housetrained a Great Dane puppy during a Tennessee mountain winter, when all he wanted was run back inside and curl up next to his best friend the space heater. ("Why are we freezing out here?" he seemed to say, shivering, with plaintive puppy eyes. "You never use that corner of the bedroom anyway!")  I even taught a Siberian Husky to heel reliably off-leash. In case you didn't know, a husky off-leash is generally a husky headed lickety-split for the hills, all treats, commands, and prior training be damned. Bottom line: I'm no newbie. So when we fell in love with a completely untrained, fearful 10-month-old German Shepherd puppy, I actually had the nerve to think: How hard could it be?

What I didn't get: There is algebra. And then, there is quantum physics.

Meet quantum physics.

Our first clue that we were in over our heads came just a couple of hours after bringing Roxie home. We took her for a walk in her new neighborhood; it was a sunny day, birds were singing (OK, maybe not--it was December), but still, everything was going swimmingly. Then she caught sight of another dog a block and a half away. And she turned into this:

No, she didn't turn into a Border Collie (although that would've been a seriously cool trick.) But you get the general barking/snarling/lunging picture. When it was happening, somehow we never had the presence of mind to take the actual Roxie's photo for future blogging documentation. Instead, we were pulling on her leash shouting, "NO!" and "STOP THAT!" and (if other people were within earshot), "WHO IS THIS STRANGE DOG WHOSE LEASH IS INEXPLICABLY IN OUR HANDS?"

Worse, even after other dogs vanished from sight (people very sensibly getting the hell away from a 65-lb completely insane German Shepherd and her obviously incompetent owners), Roxie would still keep barking and lunging. For, like, minutes. Nothing we did could get her attention. She was quite simply bonkers.

At first, we consoled ourselves that it was just nerves. Roxie had spent the entire 10 months of her life at her breeder's, only to be whisked away by strangers to a completely new environment. We'd already discovered she was terrified of bare floors and stairs, two elements which make up approximately 90% of our house. We joked that she was like an orphan raised in a Catholic convent, and here we'd taken her outside the walls to meet Baptists and Lutherans for the very first time. There were bound to be rough spots.

But while her other issues got better, the leash reactivity (technical term for bonkers) never did. Weirdly enough, she did great at day care. The staff even told us she was one of the sweetest German Shepherds they'd ever had. But anytime we took her out on a leash, she exploded at the barest glimpse of another dog. All my dog experience, all the years I'd counseled my veterinary clients on puppy raising...nothing I knew made the slightest difference.

I was utterly gobsmacked. And upset. Our idea of a second dog had been some sweet darling to keep our older dog company, to adventure out with us to dog parks and on road trips to the mountains and the beach. Instead, here we were with a dog we couldn't even take for a walk around the block. What have we brought into our house? we wondered. And now what the hell do we do?

Taking her back to the breeder wasn't an option. If we--two veterinarians with decades of dog experience between us--couldn't work with her, then how could we expect anyone else to? Nope. Warts and all, for better or worse, she was ours.

Enter Allison, professional dog trainer and sanity saver. Leash reactivity is one of the most common behavioral issues dogs have, she reassured us. And yes, there's hope. If you're willing to do the work.

We had no idea what that work would entail. But we were about to find out.

Next: BAT. No, not the baseball kind. You'll see.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Closets and Recollections

So I'm cleaning out my closets, and this time I swear I'm going to be ruthless. It doesn't matter how cute something looks on the hanger. For once, I'm going to accept the fact that...

...I never got around to buying a top to go with these pants, and what's more, I never will. matter how much I hope it won't, the red fleece sweater will always attract every dog hair within fifty miles.

...the '90s are never, ever coming back.

No rationalization. No denial. And it's working. The donation bags are getting full, my overstuffed drawers are breathing sighs of relief. Then...I get to the T-shirts.

I pull out this tank, squashed near the bottom of the drawer, and instantly I'm back in Italy. Hot blazing blue sky, turquoise water. White pebble beaches and crooked narrow streets. It was my first trip abroad. I was 22. That fall, I started...

...veterinary school, where I met... sweetheart. Yellowstone was our first road trip. Every night, we had to find a hill to park on so that we could roll-start the VW van the next morning. VW vans have crappy electrical systems. On the upside, every other VW driver on the road will wave to you.

After we graduated, my sweetheart moved to Kansas, while I drove down I-5 to my first veterinary job in...

...Mariposa, just outside Yosemite National Park. I made a wonderful friend, Marybeth, and we went to the county fair and I got this tee promoting Mariposa County's Division of Alcohol and Drug Programs. I have no idea why. Anyway, the butterfly is pretty.

From thousands of miles away, my sweetheart sent me an Indigo Girls song:

"To let this love survive would be the greatest gift we could give
Tell all the friends who think they're so together
That these are ghosts and mirages, these thoughts of fairer weather
Though it's storming out, I feel safe within the arms
Of love's discovery."

Not surprisingly, soon after that we moved to Tennessee together...

...where, among other things, we went to Indigo Girls concerts. And then...

One by one, I lay the T-shirts out. They're old. Most of them I haven't worn in years.
Get rid of them, the ruthless voice demands. They're just taking up space.

I smooth my hand over the worn fabric, the cracked designs. And then I fold them back up, one by one, and I nestle them back in the drawer.

Sometimes, the best memories aren't in photographs.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Summer of the Book

Memories of certain summers taste of certain books. These are the summers that held A Book so memorable, I can never think of one without the other. To reread a particular passage is to bring back the bright sweltering day I first read it. Where I was. What I was doing. The colors and flavors of that time.

Anna Karenina. I was between my first and second years of veterinary school, supporting myself as a lowly tech in a campus research lab. The work was beyond tedious--it involved counting lesions on microscopic sections of rat lung, section after section, hour after hour--and every free moment I had, I dove back into Tolstoy. I read Levin's marriage proposal to Kitty on a lunch break. I was more than captivated; I was transported. I felt for Anna, but Levin--Levin to me was real, more real than almost any other character I've ever met. I felt as though he drew breath next to me, with his passion and temper and terrible longings, and the battles he waged within himself about what it means to be a good man.

Middlemarch. Oh, Dorothea... while you were in Rome, stuck on a joyless honeymoon with that empty husk of a husband (really, darling, how could you?), we were on a road trip through the Carolinas. I broke my toe the day before we left. The doctor told me to stay off it or it wouldn't heal. Instead, I limped with my sweetheart through the Biltmore estate in Asheville and up the spiral stairs of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. We swam in the Atlantic, explored Fort Sumter, walked the Battery in Charleston. We were newly in love, learning each other day by day. I felt sorry that Dorothea (and poor Lydgate) hadn't chosen as wisely as we. (A bit smug, was I. About the toe, too. The doctor was right: it never did heal.)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. My agent had sold my first novel that spring. I spent the summer working like mad on revisions. Every afternoon, I took a short break in the backyard sun and immersed myself in Susanna Clarke's incredible imagination. The world she built is so rich in detail and nuance, its characters so alive, that reading it is like a master course in fiction writing. Not to mention it's funny and heartbreaking as hell.

A Suitable Boy. By now, I was blogging. I wrote a whole post about this one. Picked it up by chance, read the first couple of sentences, and was hooked. A Suitable Boy remains one of my top arguments for bookstores. I'd never heard of this book; browsing shelves is the only way I would have found this sprawling, gorgeous novel. I spent that summer in the dust and heat and rain of 1950s India, following the lives of four families, dozens of characters, coming back always to Lata Mehra as her mother seeks a suitable boy for her to marry. Sheer reading joy...which I couldn't possibly keep to myself. To date, I've made Vikram Seth fans out of five friends. All of whom gasped when they saw the 1,348 pages, and all of whom loved it as much as I did. We've had some passionate debates about the boy Lata finally chooses at the end. (I still say she made the right choice, Laura, I don't care how hard you argue.)

And this year? This is the summer of fantasy series. I grew up with fantasy novels, read them all through college. And then, for some reason, I just sort of stopped. Now I'm catching up with a vengeance. I just finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and just started A Clash of Kings, second in the Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin. HP and the Order of the Phoenix awaits, and then A Clash of Swords, and then... It won't stop with the books, either. Then it'll be the HP movies, and after that, Game of Thrones when it comes out on DVD... *rubbing hands in delicious anticipation*

What about you? What book is keeping you up nights this summer?

This post was inspired by Melissa over at Writing With Style, who asked, "What are you reading this summer?" Which got me thinking and writing. Thanks, Melissa!