wild dogs, tame dogs

after a lifetime of poor circulation and cold extremities, i have reached that age when my body has turned into a furnace that burns around the clock. i used to sleep with a heavy duvet piled up around my head during the dog days of summer. these days, i sleep with my window cracked open in january. it’s pretty weird.

winter has been mild so far this year. we’ve only had a day or two when the temperatures were near zero (fahrenheit). mostly, we’ve been hovering just around freezing. we’ve also gotten very little snow. where it has been plowed, or on south-facing hillsides, there is bare ground. this is all fine with me. i am actually enjoying this winter. which is also pretty weird.

so it was that early this morning, through the half inch of open window next to my bed, when the waning moon was high in the sky, i was wakened by a mighty chorus of coyotes. one moment there was sleeping silence and next there was a glittering, shimmering wall of noise from the feral throats of dozens of dogs. i did a quick mental calculation of where all my livestock was, assured myself that the farm was safe, and let the waves of howling, yipping, and barking wash over me like a hymn from a massive pipe organ: long, loud sustained notes broken by the slightly dissonant melody, a melody that never really asserts itself, but rests on the heavy blanket of sound beneath.

i was just starting to drift off again, floating away on the wild lullaby, when bella heard them and started to bark her little head off. the coyotes could hear her, too. by ones and twos, they dropped out of their song until all was silent except for the min pin in the living room. and when it was silent, her barking transformed into a sorrowful lilt, a bark, a howl, a dog’s heart breaking to be wild.

a pack

we break into the forest,
some dogs and i.
we are a pack,
one organism
with loll-eared, slaver-jawed parts.
our paws smash crunching leaves,
our feet crush brittle twigs.
we charge into the fray,
our hunting grins feral
our eyes focused miles away,
ready to bay,
to howl,
to laugh.
we are a pack.

animals amok!

it has been rifle season, so of course the horses have been getting out and wandering in the woods. this is courtesy of soni, who is undaunted by the electric fence and has been breaking it on a corner twice a day, every day for three days. they all go to the shed, help themselves to a bale of hay, eat up the goats’ hay, rummage around in the empty grain dishes, dig around on the lawn a bit, then toddle off into the forest, the better to be mistaken for deer. i guess the two leopard appaloosas probably wouldn’t be mistaken for anything but horses, but every fall it seems like someone shoots someone else’s horse during deer season and i’m frankly at a loss to see how anyone could think a horse is a deer, regardless of colour. other than having four legs, they really look nothing alike. i feel certain it’s a question of shoot first, ask questions later.

i finally gave up trying to keep soni in and have been letting him roam loose. this means he’s not breaking the three others out of their pasture, but it means he’s helping himself to free-choice hay (probably not a bad thing with his difficulty keeping weight) and has his nose all up in my business whenever i go out to do anything. i was transporting a dead hen the other evening and i finally had to lead soni beside me by his halter because he wouldn’t stop standing in front of me to check out the bird corpse.

the good news (for both us and for soni), is that soni is going to go spend the next half year with a lonely young morgan gelding who lost his elderly herd. soni’s a great choice for a companion horse and J, the soon-to-be lessee, is going to do some work with him under saddle. depending on how things work out for the lessee, there’s always the chance that soni will end up with her more long-term, but i’d just like to see him in a small herd where he doesn’t get poked, harassed, and bullied for food for a while. and it would be great if my other three would stay in their pasture for several days in a row, rather than several hours. oy.

we’re still fostering oakland, which ain’t no thang except that every once in a great while, someone leaves the door ajar or loses a grip on his leash and then it’s a half hour or so of “oh crap”. a few weeks ago when he got loose, he caught one of my newly re-feathered hens and pulled most of her feathers out. between my mom and i, we managed to catch him before he killed her, but only just. the day before thanksgiving, he pulled the leash out of my hand and went frolicking through the pasture, barking and gamboling and dragging the leash under the hooves of the horses. qohqoh, my appy gelding, finally put a stop to this nonsense with a sharp kick to the offending dog which, fortunately, didn’t break any dog parts but has kept oakland studiously uninterested in horses ever since. because, like the horses, this seems to be the weekend of roaming oakland and he’s been loose twice in as many days. the rescue has gotten no inquiries and the few that we’ve gotten independently haven’t panned out. he’s such a great little dog; it’s really a shame.

my little texas a&m quail (we call her gail) is living upstairs from charlotte, the fierce bad rabbit, in a rabbit hutch in our basement. the day after i brought her home, she commenced moulting and hasn’t laid an egg since. probably being in the basement isn’t going to kickstart her back to laying eggs, but they’re such comically tiny things that i’m not too concerned about it. the same co-worker who brought me gail has three bobwhites looking for a home, too, so my poultry herd is about to expand. someday i’ll have a fancy barn with a fancy semi-detached poultry coop where i can have different species in mini-habitats. in the meantime, as my hens grow older and die, i am steadily replacing them and filling up my little coop with odd birds that don’t pay for their own room and board. the ducks drink (or splash) all the water out of the fount every day, which triples my chores (in winter, i generally fill the chicken water every three or four days) between water hauling and mucking. next summer, i vow to create a proper duck house and yard so that they aren’t happily undoing all my neat chicken arrangements all winter.

the cats have cabin fever, except for mimi who expects someone to stand at the door to open it whenever she has a fancy to go out or come in. there’s a screaming cat fight downstairs at least once each evening and chuzzy, the incorrigible creature, has his paws in everything they fit in. he has lost the cap to the toothpaste tube, knocked down my mother’s magnifying glass (and not broken it) twice, and has a steady flow of pipe cleaner people and toy mice that have to be policed so that oakland doesn’t ingest them.

basically, the animals have taken over and are driving us insane. only five more months ‘til spring?

october night (willow)

the gumboot gumshoe has become a dog-blogger, but this too shall pass. i have a texas a&m quail on the farm now (just one) and it’s time to batten down the hatches for winter, with associated fencing and running-of-electrical-cords and i will get to all that, but today is about willow, who, YES, is still somehow with us. but just for today. and about grief. and about october, which is a grand time for grief.

as i’ve said in previous entries, willow has been an old dog for a long time, a lot longer time than her age (13) would necessarily warrant. she wasn’t even 10 when she started to opt to stay home from walks and it had been years at that point since she disappeared down to mud pond for a secret swim. for the last year, she has had good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, long stretches of comfort and sanity and shorter stretches of deaf, crapping battiness. every time i think it’s time to call the vet and make that terminal appointment, she bounces back, goes for a little walk, manages to get outside to do all her bodily functions every day for days until the next time.

last weekend was a bad one, so i called the vet monday morning and organized willow’s last day. i arranged the cremation. i planned all the ways to spoil an old, deaf, crapping, batty dog until the end. and, really, she’s had a good week. good enough that if i was a person of stronger constitution and less bleeding heart, i would probably have called the vet and postponed for a while, but there’s only so many times you can resolve yourself to your dog’s last day.

that’s today.

as i write this, willow is still with us. later on, i’ll leave work early, i’ll carry her to the jeep, i’ll drive to the vet, and i’ll come home alone. tonight will be impossible, tomorrow difficult, and the next week or two melancholy. i won’t want to talk about willow or grief then. it’s hard to talk about her now, with the scythe hanging over her, but it must come now or come never.

october is about little deaths: the end of bounty, the end of warmth, the end of the promise and hope of spring and summer before the long, long dark days of winter. we start looking for comfort: hot drinks, warm woolens, flannel and fire and light and something, anything to keep us from the cold. each leaf that falls, each goose that flies, each bloom of frost is a knell. it is practice for life in that it is practice for our own terminal nature. we wake, we bloom, we grow, we thrive, we wither, we die. the closer we get to our own ends, the more we look for comforts: achievements, accomplishments, concrete proof that we were here, that we had meaningful lives, that we didn’t waste what time we had.

most dogs don’t do this. they do everything with relish, everything with abandon. they sleep with joy, they eat with joy, they find nasty things to roll in and do that with joy, too. they don’t wrestle with the cursed manuscript of the next great american novel. they don’t struggle with a job to pay their mortgage. they don’t have moments of ennui. they’re dogs. they just do dog.

last night, willow came to me for a pettins. she got so excited over the ear scratching that she lost her balance and went ass over teakettle and continued to smile. feeble, odorous, and generally not in charge of her own physicality anymore, she was still living with joy, whistling through an october night and not fearing the end.

good night, my girl.

old willow

long live the pibble

back in may, i wrote about our new boxer mix pup, oakland, and how he was fitting right in to the family. he did and then he did not. for the last two months, living with oakland has been a constant struggle. he began to roam, his persecution of the cats became worse, he chased the horses, he started bringing me dead woodchucks, and finally (finally) he attacked one of the goats and drew (a tiny bit of) blood. all his jolly good humour, all his fun-loving ways, all his crazy bat ears and cute face can’t make up for the fact that oakland is a predator, a ticking time bomb in a land of prey animals. don’t get me (or oakland) wrong. he is the gentlest, sweetest, most lovable dog i’ve ever had… with people. and he loves a good dog. it’s just that he is both perfectly formed for a life on the edge of the wilderness (he’s the savage garden’s top dog) and completely unsuitable for country life (just ask the dead woodchucks). it has taken me many weeks to get to the point where i can overcome my own selfish adoration of this little black dog and consider his well-being, which begins and ends on the end of a citified leash. oakland may never skip over the meadows like a slick, dark stone on water. he may never again get a good roll in something long dead and suitably rank. he may never wade laughing through a leaf-choked vernal pool full of frogs and snowmelt and scummy rot. he may never (and i hope this is true) dig and dig and dig until he’s got the woodchuck out of the hole and bouncing like ball on the end of this toothy snout. and, as a result, oakland will live a longer, more stable life, protected from his own wolf nature in a world that is peopled with people.


musical dogs

willow is still with us. like the old codger in monty python and the holy grail, she’s stubbornly “not dead yet” and every time i think it’s time to load her on the plague cart, she decides it’s a fine time to go for a walk (and she does), followed by days of badness, inability to even get up by herself, followed by another walk.

in the meantime, we adopted a sparky little mongrel from a local all-breed rescue. his name is oakland (a name he arrived bearing and that we’ve been too indecisive to change) and he seems to be mostly boxer with a smattering of other breeds.


he and lola have become inseparable, joined at the teeth, two glossy black rockets of doggy joy. incorporating him into the family has been fairly easy: he’s an amenable little fellow and not unintelligent, although his natural prey drive is a little more robust than a labrador’s. he doesn’t seem to be trying to catch and kill, just chase and catch, but this is annoying to the cats and dangerous to the chickens and rabbit. the cats are incurably disgusted and the chickens have been relegated to a small outdoor yard during the day instead of being able to roam far and wide. the rabbit gets out to kick up her aging heels when oakland is in his crate, either at night or when we’re all away from home. it’s kind of sad for the hens, but i must admit that the flower beds are looking better than they have in years and it’s rather nice to go tromping around the property barefoot without dodging chicken poos. the girls are getting weeds and dirt clods and bundles of grass several times a day in addition to kitchen scraps. the compost pile is suffering, stinking more than it ought since it’s not being stirred and picked regularly by a herd of hens, but, all-in-all, the new arrangement is working out to almost everyone’s satisfaction.

oakland is a very nice little dog, very sweet and affectionate and mostly quite gentle, not as bumptious and roughneck as lola. he’s as well-mannered as you’d expect a six-month-old pup to be. he has responded well to clicker training, although i’m not as dedicated to it as i should be. with my work, kids in two spring sports, gardening, and the rest of the menagerie to tend, i often just want to spend the brief rest period in the evening petting on the puppy rather than schooling him. he’s very submissive. in some respects, he’s a little too timid. he is sometimes fearful to the point of being paranoid and he has snapped at one visitor already because he was afraid. we’re working on socializing him, bringing him places with us (although his carsickness makes only short trips possible). he’s very good on these outings, very friendly and laid-back. it appears that his fearfulness at home might stem from some territorial tendencies. he’s also afraid of the vacuum cleaner, the goats, the bathtub, and the lawnmower.

he came from a southern shelter, was found wandering with another puppy at two months old. he and his sibling were picked up and put into the shelter system. his sibling was attacked and killed by another shelter dog; oakland has scars on his legs and face, but survived. nevertheless, he adores dogs. he’s pretty gentle with old willow and when he meets other dogs on outings or at the vet, he is immediately animated, but respectful and submissive.

and so we’re in a holding pattern, which is nice for now.

three dog night
three dog night

willow’s sunset

eleven years ago, i was starting to think about getting another dog. it had been two or three years since our lab, odie, had passed away and it was just too hard to move on from that. i couldn’t do it. but eleven years ago, i was beginning to come around to the idea that it might be almost time to start to think about it. baby steps. i mentioned this, in passing, to a coworker (a friend), who got very excited and told me that a friend of hers was taking their two year old lab to the shelter that day and did i want her? hey, absolutely no pressure there, right?

we drove over after work and i took the dog. i’d met her once before at a party and sort of knew what i was getting into. the dog, lily, was a two year old lab: hyper, boneheaded, and terrible at staying home. her owners both worked all day and lily simply wasn’t getting enough attention for a dog of her energy level. the woman of the couple was pregnant and at the end of her rope with lily, who would blithely follow cyclists off into the hills on weekends and go on destructive tears during the week. she chased cats and anything else that moved.

i brought this monstrosity home to my two very small children (the girls were just about four at the time) and my small herd of cats and worked double time with a leash and a long fuse to get this dog settled. she was terribly depressed for the first few weeks and i think that helped with her training, to be honest. i let her sleep in my bed for company and we bonded pretty quickly. once we had a good bond, she was eager to please and learned the basics of good dog manners in just a few short weeks. i brought her to work with me one day. she saw one of the barn cats and made a beeline for it. i called out her command for leaving the cat alone (“cat!”) and she immediately swerved off and came back to grin at me. the coworker who had brought us together and who had known the dog since the dog was a pup was astounded. “is that even the same dog?!” she asked.

willow in her prime
willow in her prime

we changed her name from lily to willow (another of my coworkers was named lily and i have trouble compartmentalizing) and she’s been a good family dog for us. there were occasions when the naughty behaviours from her earlier life materialized. she was hugely into swimming and if someone didn’t take her to swim every day, she’d often just take herself down to the river for a dip. after we moved out of town, she’d take herself about a mile through the woods to a large pond in the wilderness for her swim. she didn’t like toys, she would not fetch, but she lived to swim and go for long rambles through the woods. she chased bears out of the yard and turkeys, too.

about three years ago, just after she’d turned ten, she just sort of stopped. she didn’t really slow down; there was no appreciable winding down. she just suddenly and inexplicably got really old, really quickly. knowing how difficult it had been for me to get another dog when one dog died, we decided to get a puppy while the old dog was still around. it would transition us to having a dog in place in our family already and perhaps make willow’s eventual passing easier. we found a black lab puppy and named her lola. willow proceeded to live and live and live. good old girl.

now lola is three and a half years old and has never been the only dog. willow has gone from slow-mo to nearly stationary. she has a very difficult time getting up and down the stairs and our house has the entrance on the second floor. she’s losing control of her bowels. her marbles? mostly gone. she’s sunsetting: we’ve gone from expecting months for her to weeks, maybe days. and then what becomes of lola? how does she deal with being an only dog?

to be continued…