Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Once in a California Sierra
I was swooped down upon when I was small,
And measured, but not taken after all,
By a great eagle bird in all its terror.
Such auspices are very hard to read.
My parents when I ran to them averred
I was rejected by the royal bird
As one who would not make a Ganymede.
Not find a barkeep unto Jove in me?
I have remained resentful to this day
When any but myself presumed to say
That there was anything I couldn't be.
-- Robert Frost

I am pleased to learn from this video that French for "Oh, shit!" is "Oh, shit!"

At least in Quebec it is.

Billy, did Grampa ever tell you about the time he was briefly abducted by an eagle?

Update 12-19-12
Alas, it appears that the exclamation unbelievable is probably spot-on.

Well-done, though.

And always nice to find an excuse for a little Big Bob Frost.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Perfect Circles

About a dozen years ago, I started fostering dogs who needed help getting adopted.

My first fosters were "cage break" dogs from Animal Friends in Pittsburgh.  I wanted to volunteer in a way that exploited my ability to train, and it was a bit too far to schlepp into town every day to work with the critters in the kennel.  Plus, I could see how frustrating it would be to teach a dog manners at the kennel gate, break him of jumping up, introduce him to the mutual pleasures of a loose leash -- and then have another volunteer undo every bit of it on his next walk of the day.  Penelope unraveling her weaving everydamned night, except for no good purpose.  More like the rowdy suitors breaking in and pulling the weft in their drunken revels.

Over a short period of time, the rules applied to volunteer dog-walkers became more restrictive. Dogs were not to be corrected. Someone might see it and get all butthurt. The poor goggies. Lost their homes and now some old meanie is making them do stuff.

The foster coordinators -- there were several in serial during this period -- and a couple other animal-care personnel understood that the party line about cookies and unicorns and fairy farts was not going to work on a lot of the dogs there, so they were -- unofficially, mind, never on paper -- absolutely good with sending dogs out of the facility to actually learn something.

So I started doing two-week (sometimes longer) cage breaks for the thugs -- mostly big, stupid, rude adolescent males with no clue about boundaries and manners.  Just about immediately, I started getting the cases that were otherwise going to be the subjects of a meeting of the euthanasia committee. In a couple weeks of living in a home and being held to account for their actions in a constructive way, they'd shed the kennel-induced anxiety, learn proper dog-manners from Lilly, Mel and Pip, get good and tired out, learn some basic obedience, be housebroken or re-housebroken, and generally start being real live dogs. I also once took in two little starved feral hoarder survivors, tamed and trained and fattened them up until they were real live dogs.  I'd write up a detailed, careful evaluation of each dog, with recommendations for the kind of home he was suited for and followup for his adopter.

Then I'd return him to the kennel and never hear of him again. Never knew whether the adoption counselors did dick-all with the reports.  Not so much as a phone call or a post-it note in my volunteer cubby telling me that my foster had been adopted.   But I could be sure that, before each dog left the kennel again, an army of soft-hearted and rule-hobbled volunteers re-taught him to drag a human down the sidewalk while gagging into the collar, climb and claw a person's body in "greeting," fence-fight with each dog in the kennel row, and play keepaway instead of fetch in the play yard.

Not much job satisfaction in that. And despite being larded up with t-shirts and tote bags, job satisfaction is really all that a volunteer gets for her trouble.

My first foster dog, ever. Shelter called him Karbo, which I don't think is even a name.
No idea where he went. He'd be about 13 now.
Since he was evidently part Doberman, I doubt he's still among the quick. Would have been nice to know, though.
I offered a free private lesson for each of "my" dogs' adopters, with a nice certificate that I included with the dog's write-up. Never had one contact me.

I found out that the adopters never got the nice certificate. Because the official policy was, Animal Friends did not recommend trainers who were not "all positive."  By which they meant, they only endorsed those who mouthed the politically-correct mantras of behaviorist delusion. Didn't matter what the person actually did with the dog, mattered what she said she did, and which magic words were employed. Notorious dog-beaters such as myself were reserved for the role of git 'er done, but we were to enter and leave by the servants' door and expect no credit for actually, you know, training the dog.  I was never to expect a referral from Animal Friends, not even for a dog I had spent weeks training in my own home who was now in danger of being returned by his adopter -- not even when I offered to do it for free.

The PTB at this shelter genuinely imagined a regimen of rehabilitative savage beatings when the dog was out of sight, and they were okay with that, as long as nobody knew and the horrid but highly-effective dog-beaters stayed in black ops mode

So, obviously, fuck that.

Rudy (far right) was my last shelter foster. He was a perfect dog once removed from the screaming kennel.
About ten minutes after he came into my house, I vowed that he'd never go back to a cage.
Pip, Mel, and Lilly thought he was swell.
My friend and colleague Jack adopted him, and he became Jack's unlikely SAR dog and constant companion.
Jack outlived Rudy by only a couple years.
I miss them both. I'm glad they were, and are, together.

Then came Tyler.

Tyler was an English shepherd, or English shepherd-y farm collie, at a pound in central Ohio. He'd been a stray, and was a long-termer there when he came to the attention of the English shepherd community. His time was just about up at the pound; he'd only lasted as long as he did because the staff adored him; he dodged a scheduled date with the needle at least once.

Someone from Michigan decided she wanted him, but not enough to drive three hours to get him. The breed discussion lists and the rescue transport lists made it happen.

The same day he arrived, Tyler experienced something he had never known before -- a complete stranger trying to yank a comb through his densely-matted coat.  It no doubt hurt like hell, and surprised him even more than it hurt.

So he snapped at the comb.

And was promptly and persistently declared vicious, "dominant," and an edgy, challenging dog.  According to this first adopter, a vet and a trainer proclaimed this about him.

She wouldn't drive him back to the pound, either, so he stayed a spell with a border collie rescue before catching a lift back to central Ohio.

And I drove out to pick up my first Anger Foster.

That's when I'm so pissed about the idiotic mishandling of a dog, and the bullshit spun by the dog's owners, or a pound, or best of all a "behaviorist," that I foster the dog to spite the jackasses and prove them wrong.

It generally works out pretty well. Many of my favorite fosters have been Anger Fosters.

The one whose owners invented neurological issues to justify the craziness they caused. The one returned to the pound for "viciousness" -- not according to the owners, but according to the child welfare bureaucrat who had manhandled a crying foster child in front of him and found out -- without being injured in any way -- why you don't do that when an English shepherd is on duty. The one secretly dumped at the Pittsburgh dog pound by the vulgar-rich owners when we weren't quite fast enough at finding a foster home for him and they couldn't be bothered to take him when they moved. The one presented (with five relatives) at the pound for death the next morning by the puppymiller who knew the gas chamber schedule and didn't want competition for sales. The one proclaimed incorrigible by the nationally-famous behaviorist. And, of course, every one of my Operation New Beginnings houseguests, the canine crime victims.

I gave Tyler a few days to settle in, then muzzled him and started gentle grooming on his matted coat.

He reflex-snapped at the comb (not me, the damned comb) once, as I expected. I corrected him firmly, a bit dramatically for the oh shit effect, and on we went.  Discussion over. Never repeated.

Took four or five days of short sessions to get his mats combed out and the worst of them amputated; ever after, he'd lie comatose on the patio while I groomed him. Nails, too.

He was polite and willing -- if initially pig-ignorant -- from the first, and quickly integrated into our dog pack. Pip enjoyed having a young guy to play with and push around and show the ropes. I enjoyed having time to really work with him (not that he needed much), and the knowledge that an army of dog walkers were not going to undo his training before he could be adopted.

I could never get a great shot of Tyler's face with the camera I had then.
He was too dark, with dark eyes.
Photos don't do him justice.
In a couple months, I was asking for this vicious dog to be placed in a home with children.

So he was.

He went to live with Deanna and her husband and three boys and his foster sister Pip's half-brother Indy.

Yes, English shepherd-land is a very small place. It's not that huge a coincidence.

And there, he was a "perfect dog" for them. Deanna's words.

Tyler's story -- the real story, not his misfortunes before coming to me, not the events that befell a dog-in-waiting at a foster home -- doesn't belong to me. His real story is the story of his life with his real family.  And it was pretty uneventful, which suits most dogs -- it certainly suited gentle, unassuming Tyler. Dogs mostly prefer not to live in interesting times, and Tyler had known enough drama.

Unfortunately, Tyler's real life was also short. He passed away in December, aged perhaps 11. That's very young for an English shepherd or farm collie.

I knew this because Deanna made a point to get in touch and tell me, because she knew I'd care.

There's one satisfaction that is denied to those of us who place dogs with families through rescue -- the canine circle of life. As a breeder, I can look forward to seeing Pip live on in her grandpuppies, great-grandpuppies, and on and on.  We have the satisfaction and burden of knowing that our breeding decisions now will determine what kind of dogs will be helping to raise children, wrangle stock, and seek the lost long after we have joined our own shepherds on the Big Hill. 

Our rescues are neutered. Their genetic stories end with them.  Their circles, their pond ripples, must emanate from their lives with their people, not the lives that biologically derive from theirs.

This summer, Tyler's family was ready for another dog.

Another perfect dog.

"Oh!" I told Lady's adoption coordinator when she told me that Deanna had applied for her, "Yes! That's the one -- that's perfect.  And she will get to go to a home with kids, too!"

Forgetting that the "kids" who were ten and eight and five in 2002 are now young men.

No matter. They are all still at home. They will all still be Hollee's (her new name) boys. And Dog willing, she could be the shepherd who closes one more circle, the one who looks over the first grandbabies. (No pressure, boys.  Take your time.)  If not -- even if so -- there will be another shepherd looking for a family some day, who can take over for her or help her.  Maybe he will first bide a spell at Brandywine Farm, while the genetic and cultural descendants of Pip and Mel and Lilly help him get on his feet and ready for his real life.

Going home.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Snapshot Sunday: What's With All The Screaming?

I was shifting the small goats' pasture to new ground today when I moved some old wood out of the way of the fence, and found this lady in an odd, knobby jumper:


Mother was not very happy about the roof coming off.  I only had my phone with me to further invade her privacy, so the photo is not what it could have been.

She's a wolf spider (family Lycosidae) and the kids have just hatched. That's their empty egg case she's carrying behind her like a limp balloon.  Once they hatch, they climb her legs and ride around on her back until they are big enough to go off on their own to hunt.

Field guide authors and nature writers feel the curious need to emphasize the "solitary" nature of the wolf spider, as if they were some kind of weird hermits in contrast to the normally highly gregarious arachnid clan.

Really? So carrying several hundred of your family members around as they jostle for position on your back for a good chunk of your own lifespan is not enough togetherness for any arthropod?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Snapshot Saturday: Her Dorkness, Lady Mayor of Dorkville

Lady is five months old. She is constructed entirely from legs, tail, and schnozz.  She has no earthly idea where her feet are located, as every morning she wakes up and they have once again migrated.

Although they like her, all the adult dogs can read the Kick Me sign that Nature has painted on her ass.  They regard this as a kind of sacred duty. Face Mecca and flatten the puppy five times a day.

I think this stage is among the most charming in puppydom. No more issues about wee-wee on the rug, minimal discussions about chewing That Which Is Not Yours, but hours of comic relief as the Lady Mayor trips on the stairs, runs into trees, flees crabby chickens, and generally rules Dorkville with a benign and ridiculously outsized paw. 

What? What about my ears?

Lady is living in free-range foster in Southwest Pennsylvania, and looking for her forever home via National English Shepherd Rescue. There is no earthly reason she needs to stay here in foster. It's not fair for us to bogart all the puppy amusement.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


For the immediate future, we won't need about two-thirds of the south pasture for animals. Our fencing plan will cut off the eastern portion of it, open land to be enclosed later.  It's not only far from the house, it's out of sight, and tucked in to the woods in such a way that the foxes, and sometimes coyotes and bears*, make as much use of it as we do.  When we do get around to using it, it will be for larger animals, and may require a guard animal.

There used to be a good bramble hedge between us and the farmland to the south, but the man who leases the field -- we call him Chemical Ali -- tells me that glyphosate herbicide is "so safe you can drink it -- my son is a biochemist** and he says so."

So I now avoid the surviving blackberries that grow just past their deceased hedge-mates on the edge of the mutant soybean desert.  Where the hedge is thicker, the ones on our side are okay.

I'm managing these acres as a blackberry meadow.

Berries are borne on two-year-old canes -- the thorny shoot forms from the root runners during one growing season, flowers and fruits the following year, then dries out and forms the dead tangle that catches your arms and legs and eyeballs as you try to pick fruit for the ensuing years.  It also allows bigger shrubs and noxious plants such as multiflora and poison ivy to take over, and can hold funk in wet years, contributing to mold and rot that damages plants and ruins berries.

There are ways of getting to the berries high on the bramble headwall. 

So I am mowing 1/3 of the reserve portion of the south pasture every year -- in late fall or winter, when I get to it and no critters are eating it or nesting in it.

This is the first year the practice has borne fruit. And how.

Despite drought conditions, the crop this year is vigorous.  Plenty for us, for the birds, the Pope, our friends.

So we hosted an impromptu Blackberry Day on Sunday.  About sixteen people and six dogs went pasture-picking.

Yes, during berry season, everyone eats berries and poops seeds. (Thanks to Scott Jackson, AMRG teammate, for catching Sophia on his phone.)

Okay, there are some high-maintenance individuals who don't get with the program ...

After a shift out in the blazing sun, adults, kids and dogs were all ready to come in to the shade of the porch and enjoy some of Eric's blackberry crepes.

Followed by a brief, blessed thunderstorm, followed by:


* Either that or the Pope has been dropping by at night.

** I don't think he went to, you know, a good school.

Perfesser Chaos has a PhD in biochemistry from Harvard. His response to the notion of having Ali pay us for the right to kill every green (and otherwise) thing in our hayfield -- just above our water well -- with an environmentally persistent poison, and inject GMO corn and soybeans there, is not printable.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Making Lemonade

I partner with English shepherds in my work.  I breed and raise them to be as intelligent as possible -- no prudent stops on cognition, designed to make the beasts easier to live with.  You want to live with an English shepherd, it's your job to make it easy by co-opting that brain, not suppressing it.

So I am not easily impressed.

This video left me gobsmacked.

It's a cute two-minute clip of a goofy dog playing with the hose, right?

This canine engineer is the prophetically-named Sagan.

You may know him as Garrett, son of Rosie.

He went home to live with Eric and Braveheart in Connecticut.  A third (genetic) or fifth (cultural) generation dog trainer's assistant.

And he knows how to position a hose so that the water makes the arc he wants.  In fact, without resorting to opposable thumbs, he does better at it, with fewer errors, than I typically do when I'm trying to water something in the garden and want to put the hose down for a spell.

Most "experts" will tell us that dogs are not cognitively capable of the kind of calculation that Sagan performs here.

And consider -- he is a teenage dog, very recently introduced to the joys of hose-play, and is in an excited and slightly frustrated frame of mind.  Not a recipe for successful rocket surgery.

No one screwed around with a clicker and treats to manipulate Sagan into picking up the end of the hose. Nobody manipulated successive approximations towards an arc of flowing water.  Eric just gave his puppy the latitude to find what he enjoys and experiment with it.

A dog who is selected to be intelligent, and then empowered to be intelligent will always exceed the expectations of those who have dismissed them as "lemon brains."

Sometimes he will even leave his proud grandma with her jaw hanging slack.


The video is starting to go viral, with over 5400 pageviews in the last 16 hours.

And has been picked up by MSN.  Where they employ someone who understands English shepherds astonishingly well.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Merit Promotion

Warning: Photo of barn-cat animal casualty below. Non-gory, but not suitable for sensitive audiences.

Before taking on his secret identity as Suit Guy, with powers of professional salary and health insurance, Perfesser Chaos does the morning chores each day.  Waters everyone, feeds the poultry and rabbits, lets the chickens run free.

I hibernate under the eiderdown until he leaves, largely because I cannot predict when he might be occupying the lone bathroom.  As long as I can keep my bladder comatose, there's no need for the screaming.

He often gives a status report as he changes costume after the chores.  Even odds whether I'll remember later that we're low on rabbit pellets or the latch on the ducks' pop door needs a new screw.

Tuesday morning I'd commandeered the fancy shredded-foam pillow and was enjoying my last few minutes in the flannel sarcophagus when he ended his debriefing with the always attention-grabbing "And there was a dead ferret in the center barn stall this morning."

I'm not sure exactly what I said before achieving consciousness, though what I thought was something along the lines of "Do we raise ferrets? Have I forgotten that we raise ferrets?  I like ferrets, but wouldn't I remember that we had them? This seems very unlikely ..."

 "Wait, do you mean weasel?"

"Yes, weasel."

"In the center barn stall?"

"Yes. I thought you'd want a look at it, so it's in the barn freezer."

Of note:  There are currently two hens setting eggs in the center barn stall, in their broody trances and as vulnerable as a chicken can be. The stall is latched closed and inaccessible to the dogs, but the barn cats easily hop down into it.

When I got back from appointments in the afternoon, I remembered to check the freezer, and found this.

He's smaller than the picture makes him appear -- only 6.3 ounces.  Also far more beautiful.  I probably wouldn't think so if he hadn't been intercepted before savaging my broodies and then moving on to the leporarium and the coops.  Weasel predation is easy to determine; the weasels themselves are difficult to trap, and impossible, as a practical matter, to exclude.

It must take many hundreds of these tiny ermine (short-tailed weasel) to make one coat for Cruella de Ville.  The carnage does not bear contemplation.

The cats aren't saying which one of them just jumped about three varmint-control pay grades.  Smeagol was, as usual, AWOL at the dinner hour tonight, but was reported present and fine at breakfast.  Gollum didn't have a scratch on him, but appeared smugger than usual.

There's no sign of a struggle. One of the fiercest small predators among the mammals succumbed to a single neck bite from a moggie before he put a mark on any of our chickens and rabbits.

The dogs are going to have to work pretty hard to justify themselves at their next review.

If you know of an educational entity that would like a display specimen of a male ermine in summer pelage, for taxidermy and/or a skeleton mount -- he's beautiful, nearly undamaged, and an object-lesson in not screwing with the barn kittehs.

Monday, May 7, 2012


The little runt is not taking her puppy aptitude test seriously. We cannot impress on her that this is Going On Her Permanent Record. What she does during these fifteen minutes will decide her life: go home with Barbara, to become her first search partner; go to the nice family who want a pet English shepherd, or come live with us, me and Ken and Mel and Lilly, and work as a search dog and trainer's assistant.  She keeps finding responses not defined by the four or five check-off options.

She does like the prey-drive test, in which I drag a stuffed anthropomorphic bunny (wearing a calico dress) on a string.  Pounce, grab, shake, sproing, pounce pounce pounce.  She does not like it when I put the bunny away in my box and go on to the next exercises.

Ten minutes later, last test.  Barb holds the little shizznut while I squeal and whoop it up, run away from her and duck around the corner of the barn at her breeder's farm.  We test to see if the pup searches for the weird human when she disappears.

Released, Runty springs forward with such single-minded conviction that she fails to see the unfortunately-situated wire exercise pen between her and the corner of the barn.  Hits it full speed and bounces off.  Lands dazed.  Shakes.  Looks around.  Sees the cardboard box, runs to it, flips the lid off, pounces on the stuffed rabbit.  Mine!

This puppy cannot go to the pet home.  It Would Be Bad.

Pipistrellus subflavus
. The smallest and most delicate of our eastern troglophilic bats. They hang from the ceilings and passage walls, frosted with dew, sleeping the day away in subterranean safety. They have little pink lines on their dainty arms. We adore them. They do not care. Our pixie-faced little collie-dog is Pip.  Pipistrelle. A real pip.

Mel is a playmate and auntie; Lilly takes the new kid in hand.  Jaw.  Fifty times a day, young Pip's tiny domed head disappears entirely into her lupine maw.  So many lessons.  Only a few short years to train a worthy successor.  Pip worships her.  Prostrate, and with her entire being.

I tap the top of the stone wall.  Jump up.  Pip stares blankly for several seconds. No sign that she intends to do so.  No wind-up.  No takeoff, landing, or recovery.  Just, she is on the ground, on the ground, on the ground, and then she is on the wall.  You don't see it.  Is she having herself beamed?  I dub it kinetic latency.

The clients have called me because their young Rottweiler soils his crate and rolls in it.  Seems to prefer this to going outside. I leave eight-month-old Pip in the car, windows down, in the driveway. The pup is friendly -- pushy, but friendly -- with me inside the house. I notice that the two children in the family are afraid of him, and appear not to like him, and by now I've been training long enough to pay attention to such things.  I go over the new housebreaking/hygiene regimen, which will include leash walks.

Oh no, we can't walk him on a leash.  He won't stand for it.

I clip the leash on the Rottie and take him into the front yard.  He follows happily until he perceives the leash, then flops like a carp, frothing.  I step back and apply gentle, steady traction with the leash. Enraged, red-eyed, he flies straight up, comes up the leash at my head with psychotic intent.  Halfway there, a blur flies into frame, launched from the window ten feet away.  Shoulder-checks him in midair.  He rolls twice, and as he thinks about coming back up, finds thirty-five pounds of green-eyed I Don't Think So standing over him.  He stays down.

She likes Jerry, the herding instructor.  He knows dogs, gets her. And he's helping to introduce her to her genetics made manifest.  During the lunch break she schmoozes him.  As we start to clean up, the host's little girl jumps Jerry to initiate a roughhousing session.  There is swinging and tickling and squealing. Then a silent feint, a flash of black and white, and Jerry is facing a pair of firmly disapproving green eyes. She says nothing, just stands between the child and the man who is Not the Daddy. 

Jerry is neither alarmed nor offended.  He stops the game.  That's a good dog.  The Aussies and the border collies don't do that anymore.

Pinky is dropped off at Animal Friends while in active labor.  The next day she and her five kittens move into my home office for peace and quiet and a loving nursery.

A few weeks later I find no kittens in the office. Sometimes Pinky moves them.  Search.  Call Pip to help search, but she does not come.  She's on our bed, curled around five slightly damp kittens, in the classic nursing position. She has never had puppies, and has nothing to offer other than furry warmth.  Pinky is bemused. She eventually tucks herself into the curve of Pip's belly, and her kitties commence nursing.  All parties are perfectly satisfied with this arrangement.

SAR conferences still mean nights sitting around a campfire with seldom-seen friends, telling lies. Pip has chosen her toy for the evening.  After an hour, the young handler from New York briefly breaks into consciousness.  I … I can't stop petting Pip.  She's so soft.

His own German shepherd is moping on the other side of the fire.  Where Pip told him to stay.  No one else has noticed this.

Her green eyes catch mine and gleam. I don't see strangers fawning over you everywhere we go.  Just sayin'.

We've collectively invented a new search specialty -- the "wildaster search."  Debris and rubble as at any disaster site, over an area as large as a standard wilderness search task, and harder to reach.  This describes most of the coast of Hancock County, Mississippi.

"Morning" briefing, as, once again, the sun gets higher in the sky and the day wastes away.  Dog teams are needed to check a debris and boat-choked wooded area that can only be reached by airboat.

Three handlers demur.  Their dogs will be too scared to ride in the noisy swamp craft.  Really?

The boat operator hands shooting muffs to me and Bill.  I stuff some gauze into Pip's ears and tie a bandanna over her head, babushka-style.  It's still like riding inside a jet engine.  The boat shoots off through the 8' high reeds, dense as Iowa corn.  Fifty miles an hour? Eighty?  There is nothing between us and the reeds as we scream through.

I hold onto Pip's tail for dear life -- her life.  She is leaning into the prow of the boat, grinning maniacally, like a demented figurehead.  Faster!

The puppies are four days old.  I'm at my desk in my office, back to the door, when I feel someone trot past, purposefully, and then hear some disorderly excavations in the bedroom.

There's a puppy on the bedroom floor, and Pip is evicting all the shoes from the closet.

No, puppies have to stay in the whelping box.

Like Hell they do.

I close the gate to keep her in the family room, and she jumps it, carrying the same pup.  Pop in a pressure-gate above it, she knocks it down, jumps the gate, same pup.

After a couple hours of knocking heads, we agree to compromise.  I clean out the floor of the closet, wedge a board across the entrance, and move all the puppies.  Pip does exactly as she pleases.  Like I said, compromise.

Every night, November to March.  Pip crawls under the eiderdown between us, headfirst.

After half an hour or so, she begins hyperventilating.  I reach down and grab her collar, drag her head out into the air.

I keep telling people you're the smart one, and you keep doing this.  Do you expect it to turn out differently the next time?

She is already snoring.

It's not easy getting to the address where the woman had been talking to 911 when the storm surge hit.  Once we struggle through the mud wallows and past the downed wires, there's a new problem: are any of the partly intact structures deposited nearby the one that once occupied this concrete pad?

Pip scrambles up the half-standing house while Bill and the Atlanta task force guys spread around the perimeter.  Most of it; one side is blocked by the boat slip that made this neighborhood "waterfront."  When she dips below the peak of the roof, no one can see her.

No worries; if she finds anything, she'll tell me.

Creaking, crashing, splashing, silence.  No dog.  I call.  Nothing.  The captain sprints to the roof and begins hacking a hole, ready to drop into the rubble after her.  He'd met her for the first time that morning.

The spotter to my left yells.  She's in the water!  He is starting to pull off his boots.

Is she swimming?


Don't go in!

A moment later she pulls herself ashore. Shakes. Grins as she streaks past and back up on the roof. Examines the hole the captain has thoughtfully made. Crests the roof again and checks the place where the porch had pulled away -- the porch she rode down into the boat slip.  Nope, nobody in this one.  Gee Mommy, whatsamatter?

Eight puppies in that second litter.  Nine out of ten times, if a puppy is getting an ass-kicking from Momma, it's Rosie.  Her head is perpetually in Pip's maw.

Designating a Crown Princess and raising a worthy successor is weighty business.  You don't choose the most mild-mannered tyke for the responsibility, and you don't skimp on discipline.  You make sure the crabapple doesn't roll too far.

The foster duties increase when we all move to the farm.

Cole is number twenty-two, or thereabouts.  He is troubled. Uses the most intemperate language. And will follow through with his threats -- we've known that almost his whole life.  He's an asshole. Exactly the kind of dog who Pip hates.  She sizes him up from outside the kennel.

I like him. Let's fix him.

Months later: He's staying.  I've adopted him. He can take over my job. He's my son.

No, he's a foster.  He's leaving like all the others.  Besides, is that not the one thing of which you have enough?

We'll see about that.

Any given day over twelve years.

I am calling, and calling, and calling.  Piiiip!

Walk around, go to higher ground, call, and call and call.

Right behind me, almost touching my heel, she silently shadows me.  For as long as it takes.  Laughing.

She didn't eat something that is obstructing her. It's not an enlarged spleen. Not a benign tumor.

The doctor thinks she's been fighting the carcinoma for six years, since coming back from Mississippi, since before he took that little skin malignancy off her blaze, got all of that one, but it was not all there was, and she won the war inside for six years, handily,  and then started losing, fast, so fast.

It is suddenly hard to breathe, middle of the night.  I hold her up, find an angle that makes it easier, so she can sleep a little.

You can go now.  Stop fighting.  Nobody wins this one. You know this.

I don't know how. How can I do such a thing?
It is not in her nature.

Rosie stares out the window over my shoulder and growls at something only she sees.

Let it come Rosie.  It is not the enemy.  Not tonight.

It is not in her nature. That's not how her mother raised her. She continues growling at the silent darkness.

Monday, March 26, 2012

By Proxy

The story was horrific, with TV levels of both melodrama and evil.

The young handler's accomplished SAR dog had been kidnapped from his kennel, and the nefarious dog thief had phoned with vile threats on the beloved animal's life.  Someone was jealous of the dog's success.

The nascent internet -- or at least, the little corner of it where search and rescue dog handlers hung out in 1997 -- caught fire over the course of the morning.  The check is in the mail, came the feverish emails to the SARDOGS listserver, from all over the country, the world.  Anything to help a brother get his partner back, including ransom.

Ummm ... guys ...

Shut up!  We're being hysterical here!

Good reason to be hysterical.  Sam the Newfoundland was found drowned in the river later that day.  There was a plastic bag over his head, secured by a cruel wire around his neck.  Murdered.  What monster could do such a thing?  How could we console his stricken handler?  And also, send money to the reward fund.  Bring the sociopath to justice!

Ummm ... guys ... can we just hold on ...

Why are you such a bitch all the time?*

Well, I'm the chairman of a regional SAR unit that covers that county, and I've never heard of this guy or his unit.

He says that his dead puppy has made six finds.  I'm not aware of six searches this year in this area.

The puppy was eight months old.  You all claim to be SAR handlers.  Some of you are training officers who administer your unit's operational standards.  How many of you have operational dogs that are eight months old?  How many of you have operational dogs that are eight months old and have six finds on searches?  Giant breed puppy dogs with more finds than most seasoned handlers can claim?  Really, how many?

He claims that his search and rescue dog excited hatred by virtue of his great success in finding lost people.

Is any of this plausible to y'all?

Don't harsh our righteous buzz with your infernal skepticism and snobby logic.

No, I guess I can leave that to the police chief.  Who just arrested the "handler" for killing his dog and filing a false police report.

If you are going to lie to the police, and lie badly, try not to do it with parts of the murder weapon clearly visible in the back of your truck.  Try not to lie to a chief of police who is not a born fool.


I called my friend Martha, president of a SAR unit in the county to the south of dog-murderer Ron Shawley's group.  Ever hear of this clown?

Oh, she had.  She knew him quite well, and, while as appalled as anyone, Martha failed to be entirely surprised.  Because, among other things, Ron Shawley's previous dog had also died under shady circumstances.  "Poisoned," Shawley claimed, "by bad dog food from Walmart."  Buried months before, no necropsy.  The food not retained or tested.  (And thus, no lucrative settlement money from Wally-world, oops.)  Martha hadn't believed that one, either.  But when a pet dog dies under mysterious circumstances, CSI does not swoop in and get to the bottom of it.

As for the pup -- he was a nice pup, but not trained to do anything, much less SAR.  They used him for fundraising and to impress schoolchildren.  Shawley loved to go to malls with the puppy in his official-looking vest, and get money and lots and lots of attention for being the owner of a hero dog.  This bears emphasis, because the news reporters couldn't grasp this one:  The same guy who says the dog was a "trained search and rescue dog" is the one that murdered the dog to get attention and invented a vicious kidnapper on whom to try to pin the crime.  This is not a credible source.  This is not a story about a real handler of a real SAR dog gone bonkers.  The bonkers goes back to the very beginning.

Newfoundlands are not a long-lived breed -- one reason they are unsuitable for SAR work -- but Shawley's Newfs were setting new records for brevity.

Martha told me several more things about her estimation of Shawley, his character, and likely motives for murdering one and almost certainly two dogs, but what made my blood shiver and clot, the detail that never made it to news reports:

"He and his wife were trying to have a baby. Thank god ... "

Thank god Samson, an innocent being who was totally dependent on Shawley, was just a dog.

I'm one of those people whose hackles rise when someone dismisses a loss as "just a dog."  In this case, I did it myself, and continue to do so.  I'm so sorry Samson.  I'm sure you were a sweet boy.  I never knew you, you've been dead  for fifteen years by the hand of the human you loved best, and I still tear up when I think about your short life and last moments of panic and pain and betrayal.  I'm still glad you were not a human baby.

I'd heard about Munchausen by Proxy as it applied to parents and children.  Hadn't considered it -- or something similar to it -- in the context of a dog.

Thing is, a sick pet doesn't buy much attention.  You can milk it a little for a murdered pet, with tales of shadowy enemies who stole or poisoned or otherwise harmed your dog, but that only goes so far.  It's unlikely that a news van will be in your driveway over it.

A murdered hero dog† is another matter.

Lionizing dog led to drowing, police theorize

Of course I'd by that time in my career encountered quite a few people who used "SAR dogs" as a proxy to bring unearned and disproportionate attention to themselves.  It was two years on from the Oklahoma City bombing, the first time search and rescue dogs had found a national media spotlight, and  the tiny world of search and rescue dogs had started changing overnight.  I'd started a clippings file for "Nuts, Flakes, Frauds," and it was plumping up.  Because more persons of unstable ego formation had found a new way to command the spotlight.  Some of them were swindling money for it.  All of them were putting lives in peril when they responded to a search.

Training a SAR dog and handler to a credible operational standard is hard.  It takes a long time.  There are no shortcuts.  Even the smoothest course will present ego-deflating setbacks.  Success, when it blesses one, is the result of a progressive process of profound and transformative humbling.  The difficulty, time, and humbling are part of the deal even when success does not grace the supplicant.  No guarantees.

Buying an orange dog vest, a blue light, and an embroidered ballcap is cheap, easy, and yields the exact same amount of attention and credibility from the public as does the hard and genuine road.  More bling generally brings more attention.  Time not spent training can be devoted to self-promotion.

Leading to the generally-accepted rule of thumb among old-timers, that the more lights and stickers on a claims-to-be handler's vehicle, the less dog will be inside it.  Big hat, no cows.

The line between deluding others and self-delusion is pretty furry here.  If one carefully avoids learning much, starts a "new unit" rather than joining one with standards, doesn't work real training tasks with other operational handlers, certainly never lets them see you work a task -- it's fairly easy to convince oneself that "worse than useless" does not apply.  Delusions of adequacy follow.  Delusions of grandeur are a tiny jump.

Among SAR professionals, no one ever asks "How many finds does your dog have?"  Not in a serious light.  We know that a dog or handler can work flawlessly for years at the highest levels of competence and never have the good fortune to be assigned the hot area.  We know that a dog who says "No, not here" and is telling the truth is as valuable to the search effort as the one who says "Yes, this is it."  They are the same dog.

The attention-seeker who has never followed the hard and humbling path cannot grok this ethic.  It isn't supported by "the public" or the media or, more often than not, other public-safety disciplines.

So then come the "finds."  One dog had 1,651 finds and 5,876 missions over a fourteen-year lifespan, which may or may not have included any puppyhood or retirement.  That's not a typo.  That's straight from her "handler's" website.  As is a great deal else.  I'll leave it to each reader to do the computations; there's a little calculator right on your computer desktop.  Every media hero dog has, of course, been at all the high-profile disaster searches -- Oklahoma, WTC, Katrina, the Columbia crash -- and made miraculous live finds at all of them.  (And never, ever, has her handler been escorted off the scene for trespassing and held for questioning.)

Most attention-seekers stop at the finds.  Or at piling on the multiple disciplines -- the dog, three years old, is "trained" to do SAR.  And find drugs. Explosives. Endangered species' fewmets. Currency. Bad guys. Pets.  He's my service dog for my unspecified disability that somehow does not interfere with my work as a world-famous disaster SAR handler and so you have to let him on this airplane .  Therapy dog for crippled children.  Protection dog -- this one has always routed a mugger or six, though the assailants are never caught. Hunts pheasants. Contacts the everlovin' dead.

Most attention-seekers carry on for years.  The dog's resume steadily inflates.  Additional dogs are added.  They often have eager audiences in the local media and/or internet communities, but peer review, as it were, is a bit scarcer.  It's common for a breed community to have one or two tellers of tales.  The Famous Siberian Snarklehound SAR dog and licensed bartender, living in a state where you've never visited, can be a point of pride among owners of Siberian Snarklehunden, who offer constant validation to an owner they've generally never met, and are quick to defend this total stranger from any cheeky questions about details such as external certifications or verifiable credentials.

The "handler" may manufacture a bit of drama if interest flags.  A medical emergency -- maybe it really happened, maybe it didn't, but an accidental cut on the paw will become assault and battery.  This may be the time to worry about the dog's welfare. Most attention addicts do not murder their own dogs, but the sympathy rush they get from a real or manufactured assault on the dog can push some of them in that direction.

The unwitting "hero" dogs whose owners invent another dog to take their places, the mere mortal meatdogs standing in for a fantasy creature through which their owners live an imaginary life -- like poor young Samson, they have no idea.  If they did, being dogs, they'd forgive most of it.  Because, being dogs, they know better than anyone how desperate their owners are to be the center of attention, to be showered with unearned love and approval, respect and admiration.  Isn't that a dog's job, after all?  Their only question would be, is my love not enough for you?


* NB, I was not the only Betty Buzzkill warning colleagues not to send money to the ransom-turned-reward fund that day, and many listers grokked the problem and exercised prudent restraint, silently.  But I did seem to be the designated bitch du jour, by virtue of proximity, and, you know, not being a fatuous sucker.

† The other "hero dog" that is easy to fake is "my service dog."  For someone with a pathological need to be the object of attention (not, as far as I know, a disability under the parameters of the ADA), it's hard to beat a "service dog" -- and fiendishly hard for anyone to even raise a question about it.  Because then he is bullying a disabled person.  (Observe Catch-22 hiding in this setup.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Retirement Plan

The United States first employed trained military working dogs during WWII.

While European armies, and particularly the Germans, had well-established acquisition, breeding, and training programs for military dogs, the US government improvised an unlikely sort of ad hoc Shirley Temple movie approach.

Buck up, everybody, and send us your best pal for the army so we can whip those gosh-awful Nazis and contain the yellow menace!

Americans did, shipping off their family dogs to military training centers, where those found suitable were developed into sentry, scout, messenger, sled and ambulance (battlefield SAR) dogs.

When the hostilities were over, the dogs who had survived the war came home.

Literally home.  If their original families wanted them back, that's where they went.  Others returned to civilian life with their former handlers -- men (no women in those jobs back then) who also benefited from the GI Bill, preferential hiring, and housing policies that were designed to acknowledge the value of what these citizens had done for their country.

By the Vietnam era, things were different.

The most haunted veterans I have ever met are the dog handlers.  In the long list of betrayals, the one that slashed these men's emotional hamstrings was the one they were ordered to perpetrate: leaving their partners behind, or shooting them in their kennels.  Damaged goods, not worth evacuating  Surplus equipment, to be donated to the ARVN, or destroyed before the NVA could reach it.  It.

Until twelve years ago, when a military working dog (MWD) reached the end of its usefulness, it was killed.  Every dog, every time.  Usually around age eight or ten, unless a dog had the bad luck to be injured or get sick.

(Euthanized, said the vets at Lackland.  Killed, is the word.)

In 2000, after years of pressure on the Pentagon had failed to reform the policy of executing military working dogs for the crime of growing old, an act of Congress, signed by Bill Clinton, flew right over the generals' heads.  Military working dogs were to be made available for adoption, mainly by their former handlers, when their active careers were over. The machinery of betrayal had a great spanner thrown into its cogs, and that arc of history bent a little more acutely towards justice.

But we're not done here.*

 H.R. 4103 / S. 2134, introduced to the US House by Republican Walter Jones (NC) and to the Senate by Democrat Richard Blumenthal (CT) would do four things for the canine draftees who serve this country in the military.

• It would provide for transport of retired MWDs so that they can be adopted.  Currently, if a dog is retired while overseas, it falls on his adopter to come up with the lettuce to ship him back to the states.  This can be cost-prohibitive.  (Translation: The old dog is held hostage at taxpayer expense in a kennel in Germany while his former partner tries to scrape up thousands of dollars to get him home.)

• It would facilitate ongoing medical care for retired MWDs, without spending government funds, to relieve some of the burden from the dogs' adopters.

• It would establish decorations and honors for military working dogs, along the lines of the British Dickin medal.  Of course, dogs don't care about medals.  But their handlers and comrades do.

• Finally, this legislation would rid us of the shame and dishonor of the Pentagon-invented it.

Military working dogs would regain the dignity and regard that protected the canine draftees in the 1940's.
The Secretary of Defense shall classify military working dogs as canine members of the armed forces. Such dogs shall not be classified as equipment.
Write or call your representative.  (Contact information here.)  Ask him or her to co-sponsor H.R. 4103, the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act.

Write or call your two US Senators.  (Contact information here.)  Ask them both to co-sponsor S. 2134, the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act.


* As my friend Rob has pointed out, we're not really done until we are managing our world in such a way that military working dogs are unnecessary.  Point taken.  But that arc seems to be getting longer.

This post cross-posted at Honest Dog.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I Pitch For The Tree$

These buckets are the perfect size for gathering eggs, so I always grab them out of the trash at the theater.

This afternoon PC calls me and says we can't go see John Carter tonight.

"We have to see The Lorax."

"I don't want to see The Lorax."

"I'm reviewing it for Allegheny Front.  You can contribute whatever snark you've got on it, and I'll incorporate it."

Seventy product placements and marketing tie-ins ... ahem ... partners.

Whoring an icon of the 1970's environmental movement to hawk consumer crap to children.

Will that do?

Alas, it would not.  Lured with a dinner at House of Chen, I soon regretted taking the bait.

Putting aside the nested storylines that put me to sleep twice (but I dozed off in 3-D!)

Nevermind the apparently obligatory "romance" and "family" plot elements that make carving runes in the back of my hand with a rusty engineer's compass seem like an engaging evening.

Pay no attention to the insertion of a new, unredeemed villain -- because Seuss' Once-ler is not heavy enough.

Who the hell do they think they are taking the Seussian language out of a Seuss story?!

Aside from some "clever" and ironic words and offhand references here and there, none of Ted Geisel's rhymes, neologisms and turns of phrase remain.

A child will sit through 90 minutes of chase scenes, Betty White and Taylor Swift, and strangely disturbing CGI crowd scenes that combine elements of a musical breakout number taking a wide stance with a Nuremberg rally, and have no idea what a Brown Bar-ba-loot or a Swomee-Swan might be.

Because what did that old fool know about words and kids, anyway?

(Full disclosure. The very first book I checked out of the library and read all by myself was a Dr. Seuss creation.  Dick and Jane could suck it from that moment on.)

After the families at the early show applauded the second coming of the Lorax and shuffled out to their Lincoln Navigators, after the best boy and gaffer, after we "recycled" our 3-D glasses, I collected a stack of discarded Lorax-adorned plastic popcorn buckets from the trash-and-food strewn aisles and the tops of the overflowing trash cans. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I Did Not Want Chunky Style!

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Quality-control issues at the Whiskas plant.