Monday, November 24, 2008

Director of Homeland Security

There are dogs you'd want with you in a foxhole.

Dogs that have your back.

Dogs that wish they lived in more dangerous times, so they would have more to do.

And the astonishing thing, to me, is the degree to which these qualities are heritable. Introduce two Danger Dogs at the right time, and in the resulting litter, you are going to get some more of the same.

Fail to select for it, it goes away.

I knew Moe was going to become the dog he was always meant to be when we were only a week or so on our farm.

I was on the lawn tractor, mowing out a new garden spot, with iPod and shooting muffs on, when my dog-loving insurance agent's car started down the driveway.

I couldn't hear a thing, and kept happily mowing away and singing along with Fountains of Wayne until I turned a corner and saw Moe doing a dog-style impression of this tableau:

Frank just wasn't going to come any further down the driveway. No excitement, no nastiness. Just a very clear, very authoritative, very unequivocal: None Shall Pass.

I shut off the tractor and called Moe to heel. He was content to trot over to me and sit, watching while Frank parked. I told him "That's Frank, he's supposed to be here. Okay." Moe gallumphed over and greeted him with his signature butt-first full-body wiggle and squeak.

And that's how it has been here.

There has been little enough for Moe to handle -- at least, little enough that I am aware of. He does go on patrol, so there's no way of knowing what he's heading off before it becomes a problem.

The feral cats that menaced our kittens in September have not returned after Moe showed them to the trees at the end of the lane.

There was his Secret Service style takedown of Eddie in defense of my father, a long story for another day.

There are many fox tracks and sign in the woods and further pastures, but nothing has bothered the poultry. When I have to coop the poultry before they are ready to go in at night, it is Moe who hunts each chook out of the brush and scoots her into the pop-hole with gentle authority.

He assists his mother in groundhog control.

He is rather emphatic in his efforts to drive off aerial invaders, whether low-flying geese, raptors, (dogs apparently believe in the ubiquity of chicken hawks) or this rather surprising, and surprisingly frequent, summer interloper in our air space:

He does not bark or alert to activity in the township park, which bounds our property to the west. Pays no mind to the neighbors to the north and east, who are over a hill and off the radar. The farmland to the south is seldom traveled, and he lets me know when someone is out there working or hunting -- reports unusual activity.

Today the furnace guy* arrived while I was outside with Pip and Rosie. I let him in through the basement door; Moe was upstairs.

Quite some time later, I came downstairs and left the door at the top of the stairs open. Moe followed a minute later, and, mid-stairs, perceived the stranger in the furnace room.

Tail up, head forward, he darted into the space between me and the technician. No barking, no growling, no "threat" -- just presence, and a claim on the space. Nobody was coming out of that furnace room until further intelligence was forthcoming.

"Moe, he's supposed to be in there. I let him in. It's allowed."

Wag wag wag wag. Squeak. Scratch my butt, man.

Judgment, restraint, eagerness to confront a threat without any tendency to invent it where it does not exist. Trust in legitimate authority, and good will towards men.

Maybe our country can now rediscover these virtues in our public servants and guardians.

They would do well to emulate Moe.

*We just spent four days during an unseasonable cold snap without heat, turning the living-room stove insert into the little fireplace that could (sort of) and winter camping in our house. The kitchen floor is still not replaced, since the adhesive and leveling compound could not set up at forty degrees. And may I broadcast to the world -- as I promised I would -- that we froze solely because HSA home warranty (which came with the house, not our choice to buy it) is owned, managed, and staffed by pathological liars, mental defectives, incompetents, cheats, and thieves.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

At Least, Don't Buy This

Friday is Buy Nothing Day.

We will be, depending on weather, cutting firewood, sighting in rifles, walking the dogs. Probably restocking our SAR packs against the likely rifle-season lost hunter deployment(s). Certainly eating leftovers.

I'd intended to leave this topic until then, but oh the bitter irony if you all read it on Saturday, still hung-over from a frenzied mall binge that included the worst possible impulse purchase that does not leave you with a case of the clap. I was goaded to post earlier by this entry over at the Pet Connection. Bring it, Gina, bring it!

Please send to your most impetuous friends and family. You know which ones.

(Notice that, of the
2835 "needs" listed by this notorious puppymill retailer, all of them are material in nature and coincidentally available for purchase on their shelves at easily double the big-box or online price, right next to the live product in the deli case. Is there someone out there with a strong enough stomach to walk into the mall with a clipboard and tote up the damage?)

'Tis the season in which puppymills make their profits. What consumers do in the next month determines whether Amos and Ada fire up the puggle factory for spring production, or cut their losses and go back to making oak furniture and rhubarb preserves. You decide whether March sees the opening of a shiny new GNC in that mall slot, or another year of shivering Yorki-poos behind glass.

The retail puppymill industry depends on two rather different kinds of consumers to keep the misery factory's gears greased. Without both, it will not survive. Without understanding both, advocates for animals -- shelter and rescue workers, ethical breeders, trainers, vets, and other professionals -- can't combat the retail puppymill's marketing strategies.

The "traditional" puppymill retail customer is the see - want - buy consumer. There's a reason the stores put the doggie in the window, and keep the price tags on the QT. (Hint: If the shop-worn, gangly, potbellied puppy has a sign on the cage promising $200 OFF, you do not want to know "off what?")

In other words, the traditional puppymill customer is ignorant, and lacks impulse control.

Ignorant of what?

First, the customer is ignorant of what a puppy is worth -- not "worth" as in "He's my best friend and I wouldn't take any money in the world for him," but the market value of a comparable pup.

One can buy an indifferently-bred Labrador with no registration papers or worthless papermill papers for about a hundred bucks in this market. "AKC registered," about $250.

One current ad in the local paper offers microchipped, health-guaranteed Lab pups from OFA'd, CERF'd parents for $400.

The recently-opened Petland in Pittsburgh has a three-month-old yellow-colored male Labrador for sale right now: $899. I called. The clerk (she sounded super-kyoot) volunteered the color, but not the gender, of the pup. (As we all know, there are three distinct breeds involved here: the blacklab, the yellowlab, and the choklitlab.) I did not ask about OFA and CERF. I can't keep a poker-face that well, even over the phone.

900 bills is a fair price for the carefully-raised offspring of two health-tested Labs proven in field trials or hunt tests. Also about the going rate for puppies from two pageant champions. Wanna bet that's what they are selling?

So the puppy-in-the-window buyer is getting robbed on a pure commodity-value basis, and he's mostly ignorant about that.

He's also ignorant about dogs in general, and the social constructs surrounding them: What kind of paperwork means something, and what kind is just another unnecessary tree death. What is and is not a "pure" breed, and what that does and does not mean for the pup's value as a companion. What a healthy, thrifty, sound, mentally stable puppy looks and acts like. What constitutes a useful "guarantee" on a pup's health. The developmental needs of puppies, and how those are met. The importance of genetics -- best observed in the physical persons of the parents -- in determining a pup's potential to be a good pet. The importance of assessing and matching temperament to the family situation.

One wrinkle on this kind of buyer is the customer who has been conditioned by relentless consumptionist propaganda to equate breed with brand. After all -- if I buy a new Honda-brand model of automobile, it's going to be cosmetically and functionally identical to any other new Honda-brand same-model automobile. That label is predictive of certain things, and both my personal experience of the label and the Consumer Reports generalization are useful guides in whether to buy one or go with another brand.

This is not true of dogs. There is no German shepherd brand dog. There is no poodle brand dog. One cannot conclude that because the neighbor's dog Gretchen was so kewl and lived to be fifteen, that a "German shepherd" puppy from the pet store will perform similarly. And just because Pierre liked to bite fingers doesn't mean they all will. Neither does a seemingly safe generalization -- "golden retrievers make great family dogs" -- mean that any golden retriever from any source is going to be an acceptable, much less "great," family dog.

Cosmetically "identical" (to the unpracticed eye) does not equate to functional similarity. Black, tan, pointy ears does not make Strongheart.

This "branding" misconception is especially dominant with fad breeds and fad mongrels that are, or are marketed as, "rare," and can override any judgment someone might ordinarily have about the pricing or provenance. "I must have a purebred Shiba Inu, and this one in the pet store is the only one I can get right now. They'll take a credit card, I can pay the $3000 over the next year!" The overhyped breed or "designer dog" becomes a panic buy, on par with a new Wii, a living Cabbage Patch doll. (Remember the shar pei bubble of the 80's?)

Third, the traditional storefront impulse buyer is ignorant about the puppymill industry. He may have vaguely heard of such things and even remember them being associated with pet stores just like the one he's standing in now. But the sign says that the puppies come from "USDA-licensed breeders." That's good, right? This puppy has a government stamp of approval, like a steak. And Tammi and Cindee, the super-kyoot clerks, seem to just looove the puppies, and it's all clean glass and chrome, with this thing on the wall that squirts cinnamon scent into the air every two minutes.

What can I say? We can only repeat, over and over again: If it is for sale in a pet store, it came from a puppymill. If it came from a puppymill (and it did, it did -- do you get this? -- it did), its genetics are highly suspect, its early environment was impoverished, it has been stressed and exposed to communicable disease before its immune system developed, it is at ultra-high risk of becoming a dog with serious, unfixable health and behavior problems, and you will get no help or sympathy from the seller when it does. You are buying an expensive heartbreak for yourself and your family. Furthermore, you -- you personally -- are perpetuating animal cruelty that would make you puke if you saw it, heard it, smelled it. You and your Visa card have sentenced this puppy's mother, father, and their now-inevitable successors in the puppy production line to continued lives of unremitting misery.

Do not believe the lies of the super-kyoot clerk. This puppy did not come from a "reputable breeder." (Except in the sense that "reputation" used to carry when my mother was in high school.) No reputable, ethical, caring, competent, knowledgeable breeder ever sells a puppy through a pet store, broker, or any third party to persons unknown. Never. Never ever. The person or corporation who owns this puppy's unfortunate mother does not give a rat's ass about his mother, the puppy, or any part of you that is not backed by Citibank.

And a clean, sanitized, concrete-and-stainless, passed-USDA-inspection "commercial kennel" is still a puppymill. (If a breeding kennel is large enough to be USDA-licensed -- it is a puppymill.) Regular use of bleach is not indicative of love for, knowledge of, or commitment to, the
production unitsbreeding animals caged there, nor for their
productspuppies or the unseen

Okay, so we combat the traditional pet-shop purchaser's big mistake by filling the gaps in his knowledge, in the not-unreasonable hopes that it will lead to impulse control when he's confronted by the puppy in the window -- and possibly the wails of the children. I don't care whether he's moved by an appeal to his humanity, or because he takes umbrage at being robbed, or because he (rightly) fears that the shivering little pup in the back corner of the cage will become a Big Liability in terms of vet bills, a decade of carpet-cleaning, or emergency room visits for the kiddies. I just wanna keep the Mastercard under wraps and stop the production line back in Missouri (Iowa, Holmes County, Lancaster, basement in Brooklyn).

One would think that exposure to all this information, all these warnings, would be enough to stop any but the most willful and precipitous "consumer" of dog-as-product. After all, any self-interested person will want to avoid getting ripped off, and any compassionate person will want to avoid causing suffering. Right?

That's where the second class of puppymill customer comes in.

These people also suffer from a failure of impulse control. But their ill-advised purchases are paradoxically motivated by knowledge of the puppymill industry's cruelty. They are the self-proclaimed "rescuers" of the doggie in the window. If you ask them, it is "compassion" that motivates them, and "self-interest" is just dirty.

The more photos of mangy emaciated bitches standing in filth this nice lady* sees, the more she hears about miserable lives of the young pups who are the industry's products, the more overwrought she becomes about the cruelty, the more danger she is in.

Because she is going to walk into Petland ("Just to get goldfish food."), see the most miserable, wretched, defective little product in the deli case, and ask to hold her.

And then she's going to start the rationalization process that she will later present to her incensed husband, her eye-rolling vet, her disapproving sister, the trainer whose head is cracking repeatedly against the wall, the neighbor who volunteers fifteen hours a week at the shelter: "I had to save her from that place. I couldn't leave her there. We bonded instantly."

Indeed, in the past five years or so, this category of puppymill customer may have become the dominant one, and further, they have become perversely empowered; while previously a woman would answer my question about "Where did you get the puppy?" with a simpering "I know it was wrong, but ..." preface to the story about the impulse buy at the mall, now it is more and more common to get a self-congratulatory "We rescued her from Petland!"

The first time I heard this, I imagined that the young lady and her boyfriend had donned black turtlenecks and rappelled down an airshaft to snatch puppies in the dead of night. Alas, no. The "rescue" was accomplished with the aid of Mastercard, in a manner so much resembling a routine and profitable-to-the-store purchase that one might be forgiven for regarding it as such.

This pet store buyer does not respond to appeals to either emotion or reason. Self-interest does not serve, because the buyer is wrapped up in her imagined role as the dog's savior -- so the more messed-up the dog is, the higher the medical bills, the wackier and more destructive the behavior, the happier the "rescuer" is -- the more validated she is in her elevated status. And one of the more self-indulgent delusions of her manufactured reality is validated: "No one else would have given this puppy a good home. Everyone but me who walks into a pet store and buys a puppy is a bad, selfish person doing it for terrible reasons, and they would have all been mean to her."

This buyer also maintains a divided consciousness, or is cognitively unable to supersede a concrete experience (cute puppy in my arms) with an intangible reality (my actions perpetuate the systematic abuse of her mother, father, and their now-inevitable replacements on the production line, guarantee that her retail cage will be filled tomorrow by another victim, and reward their abusers handsomely). This puppy, right here, needs me to "rescue" her; those "other" dogs somewhere else are not real, they are just theoretical dogs that I can't touch and can't look at me to beg for help.

Of course, much of this is emotionally dishonest, guilty cover for an underlying see - want -buy impulse. Nobody walks into a puppy retailer honestly believing that she will not see any puppies; one can buy every kind of pet supply at non-puppy-selling outlets nowadays, and cheaper, too. And it's remarkable how often the puppy that she asks to hold just happens to be of a
brandbreed or designer mix she has been coveting, one perhaps not readily available in appealing eight-week-old form at the local shelter. What were the chances that they'd have a cavi-poo right there in the window?! Indeed.

It took me a while in my work as a dog trainer to realize that this second kind of puppymill buyer existed -- that those of us who know dogs and want the best for them and their humans are not combating simple ignorance or uncomplicated callousness. I've long encountered unproductive savior-complex emotions in the owners of dogs that came from pounds, shelters, or (real or imagined) bad previous owners; for the dogs' sakes, I try to wean these owners from dependence on a self-image as a selfless rescuer, and a version of the dog as a lifetime helpless victim. But it was a surprise to find these same destructive personal stories behind the failing relationships that started with a very expensive retail credit card transaction.

It took me quite a bit longer to realize that the puppymill industry is aware of these buyers, understands their emotional motivations, knows that it depends on them, and markets accordingly. Holy shit, Batman!

Well duh. All it takes is a savvy corporate marketing director to stand in a busy store for an hour in December and listen to the family conversations. Petland had this figured out years before Thicky O'Thickson the Dog Trainer grokked it. And it has as much to do with competing with their own suppliers' internet direct sales as it does with grabbing market share from both shelters and decent breeders.

Because the direct-sales from internet puppymills cannot benefit from the immediacy of a (perceived to be) suffering little pup. Internet puppymillers have to pretend to be ethical breeders (and some are getting pretty good at aping the forms) because nobody in Miami Paypals a grand for a NKC-registered Sheltie that is in a wire cage in Nebraska in order to "save her."

The Petland marketers know that they are walking a fairly thin line. They must be clean and pleasant enough that people will walk in. But clinical and "mean-looking" enough that the pups project pathos. The deli case hits that note perfectly. Cold glass, steel, aqua fiberglass -- and maybe one little colorful squeaky toy in there with the morkie pup, a sort of garnish on his desolation. Perfect.

Here's another thing the Petland marketers know about the "rescue" buyers: they are the ones who will buy the sick, overaged, shopworn pups that are "marked down" -- without the markdown being big enough to make the transaction unprofitable.

And the final thing that Petland marketers know about these Martyr Mommies: They are recidivist buyers. While an ignorant buyer will only return for a second pet-store puppy if he is extremely lucky (gets that really good 'un the first time -- and they do exist) and/or exceedingly dull, callous, and incurious (Paris Hilton, say), the buyer with the well-developed Savior Complex will do it again, no matter how much heartbreak she bought the first (second, third) time. It's not the dog she's buying -- it's her self-perception as a wonderful human who helps poor little animals (and just happens to help poor little animals that are currently trendy and exactly the color she likes best.)

How do those of us who care about animals, understand the systemic nature of their commercial abuse, and work with the owners of all kinds of dogs combat this powerful psychological drive to buy?

First, I try to wean owners from a dependence on "poor-baby" emotions directed towards their dogs, from whatever source. No matter how broken the beast, he's more mature, more capable, and possesses more potential for dignity than this owner wants to allow. I do this mostly by showing how well the dog learns and responds in the absence of coddling. I show them their dog's capacity for achievement.

I also lightly talk up, and heavily demonstrate, the pleasures of owning an animal that comes with no "issues," and the wonderful relationships one can develop with a thoughtful breeder who is there for the life of his or her dogs.

I always try to direct the impulse to "save" towards dogs in pounds, shelters, and rescues -- especially those that I know will screen appropriately and try to make a good match.

And finally, I cut them off.


It would be callous of me to deny education and behavioral help to a puppymill puppy and his overwhelmed owner. I absolutely do work with pet-shop products both privately and in group classes (after the pup is no longer at elevated risk of passing on puppymill diseases to the group).

I even have some special written material for clients that addresses the specific behavior issues that beset puppymill pups -- housetraining, socialization issues, genetic shyness, etc.

I do this once.

The training handout on Your Puppymill Puppy ends with this paragraph:
If, in the future, you choose to purchase another puppy from a pet store or puppymiller, First Friend will not provide private training or classes for you. We will not be associated with any financial support of this cruel and exploitive industry. When the time comes, we are happy to help you select another puppy or dog from a source that does not profit from misery, whether you choose to buy from an ethical breeder or adopt from a shelter or rescue.
I have had many clients consult me first for behavior issues presented by a puppymill puppy; years later, they are the most likely to call me for help selecting another dog, and I've had the pleasure of training many second or successor pups that came from shelters or ethical breeders.

I have no way of knowing how many puppymill pup owners became pet store recidivists and never called me up or tried to enroll in class because they remembered this warning. Not many, I think. At some level, I don't care. I am not their dog trainer.

Now, what if every trainer, every veterinarian, every groomer, every boarding kennel operator -- every professional who cleans up after the messes caused by Petland, Hunte, Lambriar and their suppliers -- did the same?

You get one free pass for ignorance. Now I have educated you. If you choose to ignore reality, or not to care about suffering you can't see, I choose not to help you.

What if there were no vets who would work for puppymill owners -- no health certificates for flying pups?

How long before the puppymills shut down then?

* I have no doubt that there are men who buy from pet stores with this exact motivation. I don't remember ever meeting one. It is primarily a chick thing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Unbearable Cuteness of Being a Dog Trainer

Admit it. This is what you think we do all day.

One thing about working as a dog trainer -- cocktail party conversation.

Tell the random stranger at the awards banquet that you are an import manager or mechanical engineer, and usually not much goes forward from that.

Tell him you are a dermatologist or a dog trainer, and be prepared to hear his stories, endure his folklore, respond to a barrage of questions (most of which are more appropriately handled by a veterinarian -- and that goes for both dermatologists and dog trainers), and often have to deflect a demand for a free diagnosis of whatever is vaguely troubling him -- which you know he will ignore, because hey, what do you know?

There are people -- sometimes I think, everybody -- who would much rather bitch about their problems than solve them. Their mating call is "Yeah, but." I try to avoid the mistake of offering solutions in these cases, but still find myself sucked in when I am unwary. The correct response is to offer a business card and turn the conversation to something less incendiary, say, that jazzy new abortion clinic on the corner, or one's recent conversion to Mormonism.

Still, I suppose that's better than the engineer's wife who asked what I did for a living, and when I told her, responded with an enthusiastic "How cute!"

It would not occur to me to characterize anyone else's profession as "cute." I mean, assuming she is not a teddy bear stylist or greeting-card kitten photographer, say. And I still wouldn't say it to her face. Who can tell when it's been a bad day on the kitten ranch? Kitten bites get infected! Maybe the teddy bear boutique was besieged by crazed plushies in rut this week. One never knows.

I didn't ask Mrs. Cute what she did. It was apparent that the answer was not "diplomatic attache to Yemen," and was quite likely "nothing much."

Anyway, at the time I was carrying a client load that included some high-maintenance humans and a couple of fairly committed trainer-eating dogs. I'm sure Mrs. Cute did not conjure a 90-pound resource-guarding Weimaraner coming for my face when she pronounced on the nature of my career.

But it is little wonder that people have only the vaguest notion of what I do. Few people bother to train their own animals, and popular culture has provided very few, and very weird, images of what a dog trainer does at work.

The most common archetype is Barbara Woodhouse -- crazy as a sack of squirrels at best, and enough to scare the bejimmies out of most people contemplating going to a group class. If you are under 30, you may think you have never heard of this lady. Fear not; you've seen the parody a jillion times. It will never die.

Cesar Millan's television show comes close to a realistic portrayal of the kind of private counseling and one-on-one work that has been my kibble-and-butter for fourteen years. Cesar's clients are richer and on average loopier than mine. California, ya know. I do not look so good in a shortie wetsuit. I am not so willing as Cesar to take a bite -- don't know anyone else who is, actually. But I've met him, and he still had all his fingers. Neither of us typically solve all your dog problems in a 12-minute segment.

That fake dominatrix from England -- actress, not dog trainer. She's got the costume (for dominatrix, not dog trainer -- I mean, stilettos? Really?) but not the chops or attitude (mere bitchiness is not authority, Honey), and certainly not the knowledge. Anyway, a B&D mistress gets paid a lot more per hour, and who am I to say she hasn't earned it?

Possibly the best capture of the flavor and feel of working as a private dog trainer that I have ever seen in the "media" is in this short work of science fiction.

Fifteen years of bitching about work, and who knew? My husband actually heard something. It wasn't all "Blah blah blah KEN."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Woke up this morning, and world had gone all Andrew Wyeth on me

Took a walk out to the camera trap in the upper pasture. I couldn't see any tracks along the trail at all, but the dogs were running some sort of scent.

The trap camera needs to be adjusted to point more downwards, or else moved to the downhill side of the trail. I got 20+ photos of this:

And one partial shot of the swift and wily tractor-bambi:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Becoming Ourselves, Again

In which the blogger sincerely promises that this will be the last political post for a while, and commits to a return to dog stories, some meaty training topics, and perhaps more funny pictures of chickens. And in which I apologize in advance to my relatives for mining family history for a metaphor about America.

The core of conservatism -- real conservatism, not the loopy, vicious pseudo-Christian slash 'n' burn pre-millennialism that has been claiming the title in this country for the past, say, 27 years -- is a deeply-held belief that the way things are is the way things ought to be; or at least, that the way things are is preferable to the uncertainty of many unexplored possibilities. Real conservatism is, therefore, based in a profound love of this world as she is, and a respect for the gifts of the past.

The core of liberalism -- real liberalism, not some whinging self-absorbed reflex of pale political correctitude -- is a deeply-held belief that the world can be better, and that this end must be achieved through the earthly efforts of human beings. Real liberalism, therefore, is based on a profound love of potentials and possibilities, and an optimism for the promise of the future.

Those both sound pretty good to me.

I live in a nation that was audaciously founded to embrace both. I'm fine with that. Dynamic tension keeps life interesting, but not too interesting.

I also live in a nation in which the polymath genius who asserted to the world as self-evident truth the Enlightenment heresy that "All men are created equal," owned human beings as chattel -- owned his own natural children just as he owned rare books and fine wine and merino sheep. A nation in which, as well, the architect of the Constitution owned human beings.

I am not fine with that. Conserving that status quo is not okay by me. That was not being "of one's time." Nostalgia for those Good Ol' Days -- not cool. America, as in Shining City on the Hill America, as in Beacon to the World America -- America had a long way to go, a lot of progress to be made, before she fulfilled her promise to her people and her world and became herself. And things really did get quite a bit worse before they started very slowly and fitfully and with much fire and blood getting better, which supplies even the most committed progressive with some perspective about why some people do get awfully nostalgic for some other Good Ol' Days and always think everything sucks more now. Sometimes it does. The cotton gin was not a gift to the moral development and advancement of mankind.

It is the optimism of liberalism that could see not just what was wrong about that disturbingly familiar-looking young man waiting at Jefferson's table, but what was right about the sentiment that we are endowed with the those unalienable rights. Progress is not measured in how far we have come from the injustices and atrocities of the past, but how close we draw to the promise of our ideals.

Because my President has, almost in the hour of his victory, lost his grandmother -- his rootstock on this earth -- a word about my own maternal grandparents. And why I think that, despite some of what I'm going to tell you, I believe that tonight's historic victory for America honors both their memories, and the memories of so many of our honored ancestors.

My grandmother, Caroline Toso Shoenfelt, was a lifelong Democrat in a pretty Republican little town in the Western Reserve of Ohio. I don't remember her talking politics much, but I do remember that she worked at the polls in every election. Civic duty was more prominent than partisanship. It's not clear to me that there was a difference for her.

When I was a single graduate student, she tried in all seriousness to fix me up with a certain obscenely famous and ungodly talented recluse cartoonist who lived in the town. "Heather, he's single, and he's rich now, and I happen to know he's a Democrat!" What more could a Gramma want for her granddaughter?

Caroline Shoenfelt was also, during my lifetime, a Congregationalist -- Hudson being something of an outpost of New England in the nearly Midwest. What I did not know until the recent baptism of my youngest niece was that she had left the Lutheran church -- the Missouri synod, aka Shiite Protestants -- over doctrine. When the minister declared that my niece was born "a child of darkness," my Mom leaned over and whispered (and I paraphrase, but not as much as you might think) "It was shit like that that made your grandmother leave the Lutheran church." Now it happened to be Trinity Sunday when Sean was baptized, meaning that the congregation recited the entire Athanasian Creed. I'd never heard a loyalty oath being administered before, and it was uncomfortable. I had the distinct tactile hallucination of a pike point gently pressing into the small of my back. (Later Ken said I was mistaken, that it was definitely a gladius.) I saw Gramma's point.

She smoked little cherry cigars and drank the occasional Canadian Club, put too much salt on her celery and too much sugar on a bowl of wild strawberries. I inherited only the vice of oversalting; my taste in whiskey is more spendy as I age. She had great legs and skin that did not wrinkle much with age, and I was lucky enough to inherit both.

Robert Shoenfelt worked for Firestone through The War (and after), and also owned an auto repair shop in town. I'm pretty sure he was also a lifelong Democrat, but you know, he never told me that, and I could be entirely mistaken. He tended a huge garden and orchard, worked in metal and wood and photo emulsion and brick and stone, and was a Master Mason -- leading to a cognitive muddle that persisted well into my adulthood about where the practice of actual stonemasonry ended and the practice of Freemasonry began. (I was astonished to learn that most Masons do not know how to set mortar or lay a cornerstone.)

My grandparents' rural property was a few acres, I guess, but to a feral child it was a whole world. Pata cut a network of paths through the overgrown fields with his lawn tractor, and I would disappear into those fields for hours just about as soon as I could toddle off. It wasn't until I was an adolescent that I realized he had mowed those paths for me. I never, never got the slightest impression that a granddaughter was second best to a grandson.

This midwestern mechanic kept a bust of Nefertiti on the console television. Hand-forged a bronze ankh for my mother. Had bookshelves full of arcana, spiritualism, natural history, ecology. I read Silent Spring on my grandparents' living-room floor, and being about eight, cried for the dead birds. They tolerated -- even welcomed -- a swooping, pooping nest of barn swallows on the front porch every summer. They composted when no one had ever heard of it.

Robert Shoenfelt had male pattern baldness and Alzheimer's. My uncle and both of my brothers were lucky enough to inherit the former. If I inherit the latter, I have a friend (no, I am not telling who) who has sworn to put me out of my misery and find some good woman to take care of my husband.

My husband-to-be met my grandfather when Alzheimer's had already reduced him greatly -- but not yet beyond recognition. The core of the man was still there, and it was a good day for him. As we left the house and drove away, Ken turned to me and observed "Your grandfather is a wizard, you know."

Oh yes. I knew.


The conservative says, cleave to what is good in what you have, and embrace all the baggage that is attached.

The liberal says, we must do better to become what we truly are.

My grandfather did not self-censor around the grandkids. And my grandfather indulged many prejudices. At times he seemed to do little else.

I learned from him that Japanese cars were complete shit.

That cats were hateful creatures, suitable for target practice.

That black people were ... I cannot even begin to catalogue the shortcomings of black people. At my beloved Pata's knee, I first heard the injunction to "send them back to Africa." I kid you not. And worse. These lessons did not set. These lessons made me confused at much too tender an age about loving someone utterly and, utterly rejecting some part of him too.

Vile speech in front of little children -- and hateful, unworthy thoughts -- were the slave master's bastard of my grandfather's life.

But things did change.

I took my driving test in a little white Toyota. My grandparents' little white Toyota. Because those Japanese were sure making good little cars now!

One of the last big manly projects Robert Shoenfelt undertook was to put a new roof on the house. And who should join him up there but a tomcat who had been hanging around? Caroline finked him out to the rest of the family -- she heard him talking companionably to the cat while he worked. Caught him petting the cat. That cat was OK. Good company. Not like other cats.

And then there was my parents' friend, Evelyn Chatton.

My mother describes her as "The most truly spiritual and beautiful soul it was my pleasure to call my friend." I remember her as a quiet presence of comfort.

With trepidation -- and I'm sure more than a little fortifying coaching for Evelyn, and cautionary threats for Robert -- they introduced this dignified black lady to Robert, a man who was as his true self, in spiritual resonance with her.

And he loved her, and respected her. And that changed him. Not completely. Not holding hands and singing Kum-bay-ya with Carl Stokes change. That would never come. Since Robert fervently believed in reincarnation, I'm sure he will have or has already had an opportunity to continue to evolve.

That bronze ankh that he crafted for my Mom (the one I'm going to inherit one day, and my nieces will inherit from me)? He labored just as long over its twin, cut from the same slab. The ankh, as the hieroglyph for "a journey" is derived from the shape of a sandal strap. They should be made in pairs.

The other ankh was a gift for Evelyn Chatton.

Tonight I saw my America become, not just a little bit easier to love unreservedly, but more itself. I saw the promise to the world that is America the Big Idea leap forward towards its own realization, and away from the centuries-long betrayal that has been, at various times, America the bully, America the greedy, America the fearful, America the shrill -- and buried deep, but still there, swaggering in its ugliness, America the slave master.

I know that it is hard for a conservative -- a true conservative, one who loves what is so much that changing it seems too perilous to risk -- to face the future without genuine fear right now. The line between an abundance of prudence and clinical paranoia, once so clear, has been erased by years of cynical manipulation. Big changes are coming -- big changes would have come no matter what, but now we have a direction for them, and that seems threatening to those who suspect change on principle.

Step outside. The stars are spectacular over Pennsylvania tonight; maybe they are where you are, too. For all human purposes, they've been there forever, and they'll be there forever after tonight. That thought should calm anyone. Take a deep breath. Think about what it is that we have to conserve in America. Our oldest treasures. One of them begins with an unsupportable, wild-ass assertion: "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..." Another, 18th-century collectivism: "We the People ..."

American conservatives are charged with the difficult task of maintaining the radical propositions enshrined in our civic scriptures and national ideals, from the Mayflower Compact on forward. Guys, you have to conserve liberalism! That's hard to hold down with a fork. But a great task for all Americans, starting on a momentous night when we will begin to

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Everybody but me has connections

I can't get hold of a big-ass Obama yard sign, even though I live right next to a polling place.

But the production crew down in the barn apparently has more juice than I do.

Chelsea A. Arthur promises ...

Free eggs for all the kids in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.

Kids, you know what to do:

Why, We ARE of The Body

Raised By Wolves has been tapped for a Superior Scribbler Award by Janeen over at Smartdogs!

Aw shucks.

I think we're too new at this. Really.

So, since I am such a tyro, I shall utterly sincerely plead ignorance and immediately break the rules of the Award. (I was gonna excuse myself as a maverick, but I'm kinda hoping that self-characterization don't play right now.) I'm meant to nominate five other bloggers who have not already been tapped. But my blog reading is limited, and I believe most, if not all, of the fine writers you see in my blogroll have preceded our infant project in recognition.

Instead, I'd like to put the pressure on to some of the best, most insightful animal writers on the interwebz, who are hiding their lights under a basket. That's right; if Janeen can tap such a new, untested blog for recognition, I'll take it one further and pre-emptively bestow this award on five writers who should be blogging for the masses instead of concealing their talents.

Well, not entirely. They are just limiting their audiences to the subscribers of some of the better discussion lists. I have been guilty of subscribing to certain lists solely for the pleasure of reading one or two writers' posts.

I'm going to email this post to all of them -- I don't know whether any of them read this blog -- and start the arm-twisting forthwith. Any of you who know these individuals will, I'm sure, agree with my choices -- feel free to pile on.

Many of you will know the novels and nonfiction of my friend Donald McCaig. If you don't, go out and buy them. Now. I told him many years ago that he is one of the finest American essayists of our age, in the same league as Wendell Berry. That was not fan fawning, that's how it is. Then I read his Civil War novel Jacob's Ladder, and knew that I had also made the acquaintance of the Great American Novelist. Do I say so lightly? I do not. Believe it.

What you will not know is that The Donald's contributions to canine discussion lists are also lyrically beautiful, insightful, and uncompromising. Not to mention curmudgeonly when it is warranted. I first met him online on the original Canine Genetics list, which was owned by the late Dr. John Armstrong, and hosted on a university server in Calgary. Cangen was a revelation, a graduate seminar in population genetics, a usually gracious and always provocative salon of things Dog. (It was strangled in its sickbed by show-fancy dittoheads after Dr. Armstrong's untimely death in 2001.) Donald McCaig continues to enthrall me with the world of sheepdog trials and work on the closed professional Balanced Trainers' list. It is selfish for us trainers to keep these pleasures for ourselves.

Donald, knock it off with the modesty. There is a ready readership for the art you share on BT, and they need to hear what you have to say. For doG's sake man, Jon Katz has a website!

Some of you will be aware that CARDA SAR dog handler Laura Sanborn is one of the tireless citizens who spearheaded the campaign to defeat the noxious California AB 1634, The California Pet Extinction Act. Save Our Dogs spoke for the working dog in that great coalition to defeat "sounds good" nanny-statism. Those of us who need, use, love and value real working dogs -- and those who would choose their own pets -- have Laura and her husband Douglas Surber to thank for putting their lives on hold for over year to turn back the tide of PeTA's anti-animal agenda in California -- slowing its metastasis to the rest of the world, buying time for reason to prevail.

You may not know that, although Laura owns two English shepherds, she has the tenacity of a terrier when her engineer's mind encounters a puzzle. Her research skills are second to none, her ability to frame an argument and support it with facts a wonder to behold. She's one of the few people I know whose opinions follow the facts, an uncompromising intellect.

Like, for example, this.

Laura's SAR-unit name is "Twenty Questions." No doubt.

Laura is another Cangen alumna, and is active on the English shepherd discussion lists and the Balanced Trainers' list now. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of working dogs of all stripes -- not just SAR and stockdogs, but especially police and Schutzhund dogs, and extending to every beast who earns his kibble. It doesn't stop there -- Laura's interests and expertise range wide across the medical, behavioral, genetic and historical.

I asked Laura to join me in a communal blog some time ago; at the time she was neck-deep in the California battle, and both she and Douglas were hard at work establishing the amazing online registry database for the English Shepherd Club. Now Laura, you weren't thinking you'd just return to having a life, did you?

Dr. John Burchard knows more about a thousand disciplines than I will ever master about one.

Sighthounds, horses, hawks, hares. Wolves and eagles and badgers Oh My. Biomechanics. Genetics -- regular and population. Human cultures and how they interface with their animals. Tick-borne disease. Reproduction, selection both natural and artificial. Ecology. Behavior, ethology -- any species. Great Mexican food.

Some of you have seen John occasionally quoted on the fabulous Querencia blog. Not enough.

John used to go online once every couple of weeks, and then the lists to which he was subscribed (Cangen again, and others) would receive an enormous bolus of Burchardian knowledge, insight, and wisdom. I would purely salivate when I saw the first post, for I knew there would be a dozen wonderful ones to digest that day.

I once asked John, as I was working on a magazine project that died aborning, what he would most want ordinary dog owners to know about their animals. This hard scientist thought for a while and said, carefully, "They must understand that there is a mind there."

John Burchard is gracious above all else. John, it is unkind of you not to share yourself more widely.

Alison Lever is a Brit expat academic who thinks on Things Dog and, now, raises sheep and picks olives in rural Spain and continues to think on Things Cultural, like this and this. Alison, am I correct that your specific form of overeducation is as a cultural anthropologist? I miss her posts to Balanced Trainers, followed her journey from urban pet owner in closely-guarded England to Spanish shepherdess in one of the villages where she performed her field work.

Alison, come down out of that olive tree a few times a week and tell the world about it!

Baton Rouge dog trainer Dick Russell welcomed me to the Balanced Trainers' list with a threat to the other members -- If you run this one off, there will be (I forget the specific colorful Cajun consequence). No worries Dick -- I was happy to jump in swinging. Where Donald McCaig is curmudgeonly, Dick Russell is just plain ornery -- and we like it that way.

More to the point, there is no other single dog trainer whose advice to owners I simply send off verbatim (usually as a link) so often. Like this one.

At my first dog trainers' conference, hundreds of dogs, there were three dogs that were never on a leash, and never on an electronic collar, had never been trained on an electronic collar. One was my beloved SAR partner Mel. One was Donald McCaig's June. And the third was Dick's sheepdog Annie.

Dick, I want to hear about your horses and Gulf Coast sheep and sheepdogs and kittens and etouffee and chickens and politics and wimmin again.

The gauntlet has been slapped to the ground. Blogger accounts are free. Gentlemen and ladies, what say you?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Poultry Politics: Part 1

The guineas are in jail.

If no one wants to buy them, they will be moving to permanent quarters in a big white humming box in the basement. Unlike Ted Stevens, they are not getting a vote.

Before I bought the guinea keets, a number of people warned me that they can be territorial and aggressive towards people and dogs. Hah! We tremble in fear at the prospect of a two-pound bird getting cocky. No issues with respecting people or dogs here.

But I was also told "Put 'em in with your chickens. No problem!"

For three months, no problem.

Then, quite suddenly, big problem.

At first, I figured the chooks were just getting more standoffish. Most of them didn't come running when I showed up with scratch or kitchen scraps during daytime free-ranging. The guineas were right there, though.

Then I wondered why a couple of them seemed to be hanging out in the coop most of the day, often up on the roosts at midday.
Bad Flock Owner! Pay attention!

Then one night last week, I heard the commotion in the coop stall as I did chickie bedtime barn chores -- guineas attacking my Orpingtons, who were cowering in the corners. Buff Orps are, in every way, the golden retrievers of the chicken world -- fighting back was not in their repertoire.

I identified two main culprits and employed the Broom of Instruction on them. And, somewhat to my surprise, that settled it. For that night.

The next night, they were back at it, this time targeting my New Hampshire pullets as well. Two of the New Hamps are special pet lap chickens. I came running to the shrieking to see a guinea with a red and black New Hampsire tail feather in his beak. Oh, hell no!

Caught the culprit in a net and hung him upside down while discussing moist-heat cooking methods. Invited the pullets up on the roost to peck him for emphasis. Chelsea A. Arthur, my white alpha chickie, got it right away, and took a few shots. And that settled it. For that night.

Next day I was cutting a dog door into a barn stall at midday. With more or less unlimited pasture, the guineas were choosing to chase and torture selected chickens -- the buff, red, and white chickens. Basically, any bird that was not colored or patterned like a guinea.

Moe, who is rapidly becoming indispensable in his roles as Director of Homeland Security and First Farm Hand here, diligently interrupted all attacks. He is gentle, but birds respect him.

That night, the guineas started in as soon as everyone came in to the coop. I closed the door to the outside pen, put a roost pole in one corner, and kicked their speckled butts out for the night. The pullets mobbed me, chucking and purring quietly.

I asked for advice on a guinea message board, which has hundreds of members and hosts a lively discussion on such topics as the best treats for guineas, guinea color genetics, what to name guineas, etc. That was a week ago. I've not received a single answer. Thanks guys, so helpful.

So I posted the same questions to the backyard chicken forum -- was this a teenage thing? Was there a way to correct the bullying? (The birds have plenty of coop space, free-range all day, are the same age and raised together, get plenty of fresh green food and free-choice pellets -- so none of the usual causes of intra-flock aggression seemed to apply.)

Answers -- once they start, there's no stopping it. They'll escalate. They'll kill your hens.

On Wednesday I opened the pop door in the morning, all the guineas ran out, and all the pullets stayed on the roost.


Closed the pop door, locking out the monsters, and all the pullets leaped down and attacked the feeder.

That's it!

I left the door closed and built guinea jail in the next stall.

Then the task of catching the beasts. There was an unseasonable snow squall blowing all day. Moe was indisposed, as he often is on the first nasty days of winter. He was upstairs in the warm bed.

So I asked Rosie.

I've never let Rose "work" the poultry. All her training re: poultry thus far has been about leaving them alone, respecting their space, not being too rowdy in their presence.

I asked her to flank me while we gently herded the easily-panicked birds into the small run off the coop. This worked okay; I went in after them with my handy landing net, closed the gate -- and the entire flock exploded upwards, bursting through the bird-netting roof.

Oh damn.

We spent the next half-hour trying to corner the flock while I "controlled" my little dog with obedience commands and body language, trying to keep her back off the birds, keep her quiet.

She had real trouble understanding what it was I wanted. The situation was too fluid, and my reflexes too slow for me to tell her exactly where to be, and how fast to move, and when to stop. What were we doing? Rosie had no idea. Certainly not catching guineas. She whined and groused and pouted, one of her specialties.

Did I mention that it was blowing 30 mph with a wet snow?

After the last of dozens of disheartening failures, I gave up. I just told Rosie to go get 'em and stood back.

Theory? She'd run the little bastards to exhaustion and I'd pick them off with the net. And she'd vent some of her boiling frustration. And I'd deal with the fallout of allowing her to chase poultry later.

She ran them for about five minutes. Chased them around the barn. Repeatedly split the flock and ran down singles until they flew. Treed them, and I'd push them off with a stick. I just kept egging her on.

And then it happened.

Rose had just run them all the way around the barn and was chasing them towards me out in the pasture.

The flock of seven made a 3-4 split.

And the tumbler of some lock in Rosie's brain turned. Sha-shik. Instead of chasing one group or the other, instead of a mad dash to put some of them to flight, Rosie feinted left, circled, and put the flock back together.

Her genetics called her to herself, and she came to them. My petulant little beast became a stock dog. It happens in a second.

She fetched the flock straight to me, and I caught one with the net. Took it in and popped it into guinea jail.

Four more times, she put the flock together, fetched it to me, and I picked one off with the net. Then she'd follow me into the barn and look menacing when I opened up jail to pop each one in.

Once a single bird took flight and landed on top of a 6' fence post. Rose jumped up, bopped him in the ass, and sent him back to the flock, then fetched the flock.

Imagine starting a stockdog pup on fast, ill-natured, panicky sheep that can fly. Not a choice one would make if one had the choice.

When we got down to two birds, they didn't flock, per se, and would not be fetched as a pair. I missed them with the net in the pasture several times. Finally, Rosie cornered them by the barn, and I got one with the net. While we were booking him in the barn, the other disappeared. Just gone.

We had to go to Cranberry to let a contractor into the soon-to-be-sold house.

Came back; still squalling. There was the lone bird, in the mint patch. I had my net in the car with me. Thought I had a chance of sneaking up on the bugger and nabbing him.

No way. Did I mention that, for birds with essentially no brain and no ability to learn, these things are awfully wily about avoiding capture?

Let Rosie out of the car. She'd been watching me. Ran the little bugger out from his hide under the forsythia, around the house, around the swimming pool, and trapped him in a blind corner of the house. Stood back, grinning, and held him there until I arrived with the net.

She's shown no propensity to bother the chickens in the past five days. But I have to keep her away from guinea jail. She'd love to repeat her achievement.

The chooks are happy. They once again come running to me without fear whenever I come down to the barn, whether or not I'm carrying scraps for them. All is quiet in the coop at night, and everyone has her tail feathers.

The pocket camera is not great, and I didn't think to get it before we were down to two birds; here's Rose fetching one towards me. I will once again miss it with the net.