Friday, September 12, 2008

Country Dog, City Dog

I would never keep a dog in the city. That's just cruel.

While I occasionally hear this original pearl
of "wisdom" from a cat-owning urbanite or a bona fide hick (generally one whose dog is chained to a stump out back), it's mostly parroted by smug sprawl-dwellers, the ones with the 1/4 acre of Chemlawned perfection surrounding their Maronda trophy house. The dog lives in the basement laundry room, because claws damage hardwood, and, turns out, a $1500 non-shedding, hypo-allergenic goldendoodle sheds plenty, and smells pretty bad, too. This is the dog owner who installs an invisible shock fence -- often because his homeowners' association forbids real fencing -- in a lot with indistinguishable boundaries. Nobody walks the dog -- no sidewalks, and anyway, Dustin has soccer and Kimberlee needs to get to cheering practice. Then he wonders why his trophy dog is neurotic, disobedient, and hyperactive.
But I digress.
Why start a blog about our adventure on our new farm with a post about dogs in the city?

Well, that's where we started.

Our first search and rescue (SAR) dog, Lilly, grew up in a second-story walkup apartment in an urban neighborhood in Greater Boston.

A big German shepherd with working drives and a mission in life would seem like the exact dog for whom city life constitutes cruel restriction.

I want to come back and have Lilly's life next time around.

While our d
uplex had a small yard, and our landlord even permitted me to grow a tiny vegetable garden, the realities of urban life meant that Lilly got her walks every single day -- short walks for a leg stretch and elimination, and long walks every single day. We went to the school playground, the city park, the town conservation land. One cannot skip the walks in the city, and to have pleasant walks, one cannot skip the obedience training.

Because Boston/Cambridge is a fairly sophisticated place, and at the time, the crime rate was of concern, I had little difficulty bringing Lilly to work with me. The one objection by a visiting faculty member was overruled when I shamelessly dealt out and played my sure is dangerous for females working at night around here card. So Lilly shared my space in my tiny TF crate in the basement, she heeled thro
ugh Harvard Square and Harvard Yard to classes, chilled out under the desk during class time, schmoozed with the students, knew all the tellers at our bank, had the out-of-the-way spots for down-stays memorized for each and every used book store. Lilly stayed home with the cat when we grocery shopped, ate out, and went to the movies. Otherwise, she was included.

Lilly was a sophisticated Harvard-educated city girl, with the genteel manners to show for it. She was also Mistress of the Wild
erness; in those first two years of urban life, she spent more time sleeping in a tent and carrying a backpack than most modern Boy Scouts will in their entire lives.
After we moved from Boston, the next 14 years of our lives were spent in the 'burbs, first in a close-in older suburb of Pittsburgh, then in a township that is literally a case study on the evils of sprawl. Neither place has sidewalks or anything resembling civic life. The first time I walked into a bank in Pittsburgh with Lilly at heel, one would think that I'd arrived with a bomb strapped to my chest -- except that a mad bomber would have at least gotten some respect.

Both places were tolerable because of nearby "waste" land -- an abandoned strip mine in Baldwin, and extensive fallow farmland in Cra
nberry. We walked, biked, picked berries, hunted, worked our dogs and played with them in these doomed spaces, forgotten until the developers could squeeze the maximum profits from them. The modest Cranberry house has a large fenced yard -- "perfect for dogs." Except -- my dogs were almost the only ones on the street who got walks, or training, or car rides to places other than the vet. The others, with a couple exceptions, barked at the novelty from behind their own fences.

When the bulldozers showed up on the Graham farm to the north of us, we started looking for rural property.

A year later, here we are.
But I wanted to write about Rosie.
Here is young Rosie in her natural habitat, what the biologists call the environment of evolutionary adaptation:

She wasn't born here, but she was less than a year old when her world changed from suburban restriction to the farm environment that her genes tell her is right and good. Her people have been selected for hundreds of years to live and work on small farms just like ours.

But the other thing that her genes tell her to do is to find people. We refine that with training, so that she is becoming a Mistress of Trailing Lost People. When she's operational as a trailing dog, we'll cross-train her for wilderness air-scenting and disaster work, just like her Momma.

A SAR dog -- and especially a disaster SAR dog -- needs to be rock-steady in the face of weirdness, loudness, scariness, and just-plain-wrongness.

So yesterday it was off to the city for some long-neglected "exposure" in conjunction with many errands.

We started with breakfast at Pamela's in the Strip, which has sidewalk tables and something called Lyonnaise potatoes that will surely be the death of me and I don't care. (Rosie had already enjoyed her own breakfast -- raw beef liver, rice and vegetables -- which may explain why we eat separately.)

Rosie broke her down-stay when I went inside to alert the waitress to our presence -- came to the door and looked in for me. She broke the stay so quickly and guilelessly that it was clearly a lack of understanding, not disobedience. A hole in her training. So, check -- practice out-of-sight down-stays in new environments.

She was a good girl and held her stay while I ate, but really, really wanted to greet every person who walked by. This is partly because she is genetically uber-friendly, like her mother, partly because we encourage outgoing behavior through her SAR training, and partly because she's a hick who hasn't learned to pace herself, that th
e cool dogs don't whore for every single person passing by. Picture Crocodile Dundee, hailing every passer-by in Manhattan. Just like that.
Then we drove to two different wholesalers for various raw meats, which is what Rosie and her homies eat. I had twenty minutes left on my meter, so it was time for some heeling practice. Heeling is something we've done little of, and that I don't use much in daily life in the country. But it's an important skill for a SAR dog.

Rosie did beautifully. Just like her SAR training -
- her accomplishments are well out of proportion to the degree of time and effort we've invested in attaining them. Five minutes into the walk she had mastered the automatic sit. While she still wanted to greet every passer-by, she held heel position. Several people stopped to fuss over her while she was sitting at heel, so she got rewarded for that. There were two dogs who passed nearby that were hauling their owners and being unmannerly; Rosie hates that, and made some comments under her breath, but stayed at heel.

It wasn't until I was about to cross the street to return to our car that we hit a hitch. Rosie jumped and balked and even spun a little as she startled. What had spooked her? The loud, nasty busses and trucks? No -- those weren't
bothersome. The lady with the walker? Hardly! The large crowd of loud-talking women? Just another pack of admirers in Rosie-world.

No, the wrong thing was this:

And who can blame her, really?

Rosie explained to me that this thing was pret
ending to be a person, but wasn't a person, and the eyes and hairy stuff were horrible, and it just would not do! It's a troll! An evil troll! Right here on the corner by Wholey's parking lot, not even under a bridge like he's supposed to!

I explained to her that she was right about all that, thanked her for bringing my attention to the matter, and now she was just going to have to suck it, harden up, and deal with the monster.

Took about two minutes to encourage her -- with matter-of-fact obedience exercises, not cooing and babbling -- to touch the thing
with confidence. I did not accept darting in and then popping backwards.

When I backed up to take a snapshot with my camera phone, we had to start all over. Touching the thing with Momma right there is an entirely different thing from sitting next to it all alone. But we persevered.

Notice that Rosie is neither looking directly at the camera (thus turning her back on Evil Troll Gorton's Fisherman) nor making "eye contact" with the mannequin. Her sideways stance is an attempt at self-calming.

So Rosie will meet many more wrong vaguely anthropomorphic things in her near future. Statues. Cigar-store Indians. Sports mascots. Smokey The Bear. Clowns. Creepy dolls. Department-store mannequins. "Lost hunters" in ghillie suits. Paris Hilton.

Because a search dog -- country dog, city dog, suburban dog -- needs to have the jaded nerves of a Manhattanite. When the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man lumbers onto the disaster scene raining destruction of Biblical proportions, and forty firefighters in full Haz-Mat gear are spraying it with hoses while Yog-Sothoth awakens in the crater below -- I expect my search dog to keep hunting Little Timmy's well with equanimity.


  1. What got you started in SAR? How old was Lilly when you started her SAR training?

  2. Heather, LOVE the blog. And I agree with Rosie, thats one scary little troll!
    Count me as a loyal fan... of at least this first entry. Waiting for more (no pressure).

    Oh, and do you know I had to "Join" Google to leave these words of praise, annoying!

  3. Sue -- I fixed the settings to allow comments from anyone.

    Kathi -- That's a good question -- enough to justify a whole post about how we got started in SAR. (Short answer: Lilly was 4 months old, and needed a job, so we got her one.)

  4. Having walked the farm with my own dog along with yours, witnessed first-hand the World According to Rosie (sounds like the title for another post, hint, hint), and having experienced both city and country living with dogs, I thought this a fun entry to read and will put your blog in my favorites to visit from time to time.

  5. Hi Heather, this was a great article. Keep it up. We'd love to continue to hear about the adventures of Rosie.

    Audie's dad.

  6. Huh. It never occurred to me to take my (shy) dog down into the Strip to help her learn to deal with crowds better. I've taken her to large sports tournaments and so on, and she's done very well, but perhaps some Saturday soon, a Strip-trip is in order.

  7. Great blog, Heather -- and you're so right about the upside of raising a dog in the city.

    When I was single and living in DC, I adopted a mixed Poodle from the local shelter. We loved going on our rounds up and down Connecticut Avenue. A stop at the video store was her chance to hoover up the popcorn on the floor; a stop at the liquor store was an opportunity to score a biscuit from the owners; and Sunday afternoons at the bookstore meant good browsing time for me and good meet-and-greet time for her. Now I'm a married suburban mom, and Molly has long since departed for the Bridge. My current dog has a great life, but nothing quite like what Molly had.

  8. So, Ken's not the only author in the family! I look forward to reading the further adventures of Rosie (or whatever).

    Betty (you don't know more than one, do you?)

  9. My dog said to tell your dog that there is strange fauna in the city too. Like hedgehogs that sit very still by the front door.
    She stared and stared at that strange creature until I released her to go sniff it and then she couldn't care less, but her initial reaction to the boot scraper was hilarious.

  10. Hey, H. Houlahan, congrats on starting a blog!

    Can't wait to read more.


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