Sunday Nibble #89: Happy birthday to the little Queen

In honor of what would have been the 17th birthday of a dog no longer with us.

Today, November 14, 2021, would have been my dog Sheeba’s 17th birthday but, unfortunately, she left us just over a year-and-a-half ago, on May 1, 2020.

One of the sad truths about pets — besides that they do not live as long — is that we always know the exact date they died, but rarely know the exact date they were born, unless we get them from a breeder.

Which you should never, ever do, by the way. There are plenty of loving, healthy dogs available in shelters and rescues, and they also have the advantage of not being as potentially inbred as an expensive designer dog might be.

But whenever I adopt a dog, one of the first things I do is pick their birthday. I know that some people like to make it the anniversary of the adoption day — and even call it their adoptiversary — but I’d rather give each of my dogs one special day out of the year that I can also use to keep track of their age.

My first two dogs both happened to be born around middle to late August, so they both got August 23 as a birthday, although they were born fifteen years apart and never actually met. I picked the 23rd because that day is associated with Sirius, the Dog Star.

Sheeba was a little trickier because her birthday fell in late fall, probably some time in November. So, since I had two friends with birthdays on October and December 14, I decided to put Sheeba right between them, and November 14 became her birthday.

I always celebrated my dogs’ birthdays with them although, obviously, it’s a lot easier to do it in a one dog household. For the just over nine years that I had both Sheeba and her older sister Shadow, they both celebrated each of their birthdays the same way.

Sure, neither of them ever had any idea what the hell was going on, but because of how I celebrated, they didn’t really mind. Depending on how much money I was making, they would each get either their own steak (well, generally, part of a London Broil) in good times, and their own miniature cheeseburger in tougher times.

I’d serve this on one of my real plates and sometimes even let them sit at the table to eat — although that can be a bad idea if, like Shadow did, your dog thinks this means that they can sit at the table all the time. That’s part of why including things like singing happy birthday and doing other little rituals are so important. It lets them know that there’s something different about today.

There would also always be presents — usually squeaky toys for Shadow and chewy things for Sheeba, plus a bag of their favorite treats. I’d loosely wrap these in newspaper to make it easy for the dogs to open them. And, yet again, I had to untrain Shadow once the first Christmas after her birthday rolled around, and she proceeded to unwrap all the human presents stacked in the corner.

The festivities would end with a dog safe “cake” consisting of a muffin they could actually safely eat, quite often with numbered birthday candles on top. Yes, they were clearly totally baffled by the idea that their food was on fire, but I’d handle blowing the candles out and they would scarf down their treats.

Of course, I never had any illusions that I was doing the dog birthday parties for anyone but me, but I could tell that it made them happy because, special food, even if they had no idea why it was happening.

That’s something you learn as a pet parent, though. Their happiness is your happiness whether it’s them greeting you with full-body wiggling excitement when you come home or flipping out in joy when it’s time for walkies or a ride in the car.

One other moment of insta-joy that I shared with my dogs from time to time also involved a cheeseburger, although in this case it was one that Daddy made with eyes bigger than his stomach, and when that happened and there was a third of it I just couldn’t eat because the whole thing was like three quarters of a pound to begin with, then the dogs would get the remainder, cut up into tiny bits.

The funniest thing was this, though: They could just tell when I hadn’t finished the whole thing, even if I left it on my plate for ten or fifteen minutes but pushed to the back of the plate in the middle of my desk where they couldn’t even see it.

Sheeba became particularly adept at this one. As soon as I’d stand up and grab the dish, she was leading me backwards into the kitchen, tail wagging furiously in anticipation — but she only ever did it when there was something leftover on that plate for her. Otherwise, nary a glimmer of excitement.

I really don’t know how they did it; whether the remains of the burger really had enough of a different, stronger smell that they could estimate the amount, or whether it was some body language I was giving off that told them, “Damn, why did I try to eat all of that?

All of that is just part of the wonderful mysteries of dogs, and for the nearly fifteen years that she was a part of my life, Sheeba in particular was the Queen of Wonderful Mysteries. She just has a way about her, and the ability to figure out and understand things that a dog never should have been capable of.

Which is a big part of why I miss her so much — especially today, but every day since she left me.

Sunday nibble #81: Me and my Shadow

Seven years ago today, I said good-bye for the last time to Shadow, my middle dog and problem child, although given subsequent events in real life, it seems like it’s been forever.

I’m not sure exactly how old she was. I adopted her on May 11, 2001, which was eleven days after the passing of my dog Dazé. The rescue group thought she was about a year and a half old, which would have put her birth around October, 1999 and she didn’t grow much after I adopted her, so the age was probably accurate.

I set her official “birthday” August 23 mainly because it was close enough, plus that was also Dazé’s official birthday, although in her case it would have been within a week of the truth either way because we adopted her as a puppy and knew how many weeks old she was.

That does mean, though, that Shadow hadn’t quite made it to her 15th birthday — or maybe she was just past it. And we never figured out why she died. Her vets had ruled out a lot of things, including cancer. It was just that she started to lose weight but didn’t seem to have anything wrong with her.

I do remember that after they had shaved her on one side to do an ultrasound, it took forever for that fur to grow back and it never really got to its original length, would did imply some sort of metabolic problem that was interfering with her body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

She was sick for a couple of years, and then one evening her back legs collapsed and she couldn’t stand up. I placed her in her bed and made her comfortable but in the morning she was barely mobile and I could tell that she was no longer happy. I don’t know whether she was in pain, but her eyes told me that she’d given up.

I took her in to the vet at the earliest appointment that day but already knew. They took one look at her and agreed that it was time. While they prepared her by putting a catheter in her foreleg, I ran home and got my other dog Sheeba, because I wanted her to be there — one of the advantages of living five minutes from the Vet’s office.

It was quick and painless and then it was done. The only thing that made it easier was that I was going home with Sheeba and not to an empty home like I had after Dazé died, or like I would after Sheeba died in 2020.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Shadow was my problem child, so I think that I learned more from her than I did from my other two dogs.

Our adventure together began on that May day in 2001 when two volunteers from German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County (GSROC) brought her over.

Shadow wasn’t actually a German shepherd, though. I couldn’t have adopted her if she had been because of rules at my apartment. They thought she might have been a white German shepherd mix, which isn’t recognized by the AKC, so skates through a technical loophole on the breed thing, but eventually I think I figured out that she was probably a Belgian Malinois mixed with a smaller breed, like American Eskimo.

I’d found her in the first place because Dazé had been an American Eskimo and West Highland terrier mix, and when I searched for Esky mixes, Shadow was the only dog that came up. I wasn’t able to test her DNA before she passed, although I wish that I had because when I tested Sheeba’s DNA, she came up with all kinds of surprises.

Anyway, the volunteers brought her over and into my place, then each of them snuck out when she wasn’t looking, leaving her alone with me. However, long before the first one of them left, she went out onto my patio, curled up against the fence, and just stayed there, looking very apprehensive.

When the volunteers were gone, she wanted to have nothing to do with me, and I had that sinking feeling of, “Oh no. This isn’t going to work, is it?” So I inadvertently did the best thing I could. I ignored her and went about my day.

Eventually, I was in my bedroom, sitting on the bed with my back to the door when I heard the faintest of jingles from her dog tags clinking together and realized that she was standing in the doorway. I didn’t look at her, but instead I slid my right hand pack, patted the bed, and then left my fist sitting there.

I could sense her as she very cautiously approached, gently climbed onto the bed and then walked over slowly, finally sniffing my hand. Curiosity had gotten the better of her, and then she sat next to me.

Right after that, I fed her, and when she realized that I was not going to eat her but feed her instead, all of her fear of me vanished and she was joined at the hip from that moment on.

Considering how afraid of me she was in those first couple of hours together, it’s amazing how much she came to depend on me as her protector. If the slightest thing scared her, she would run right to Daddy, and either try to awkwardly climb onto my lap if I was sitting — even though she could have easily jumped onto it — or to hide behind my legs if I was standing.

At night, she had to sleep on the bed, and as close to me as possible. She preferred to curl up behind my legs, which was fine because I tended to sleep on my side with my legs bent, and she happened to be just the right size, curled up, to fit between my ankles and my ass, and fit into the curve of my legs.

I just had to remember not to move too much at night, because she was definitely a liquid dog, and would flow to fill whatever space was available. If I got too close to my edge of the bed, she’d be right there behind me, as close as possible.

Her nemeses were thunder, fireworks, and loud noises in general. Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of thunderstorms in L.A., but we certainly get a lot of fireworks at certain times of the year, and the place I first lived in with her was in a neighborhood that seemed to believe that celebrating the 4th of July started around the middle of June and continued on a daily and nightly basis until Bastille Day.

That would get her to climb onto my lap and tremble like a leaf for sure.

We were also in exactly the right place to experience the unique double sonic-boom whenever a Space Shuttle returned to Edwards AFB, which happened nine times during her life.

The thing is, those booms were loud, there would be two of them slightly separated, and they would always rattle the windows. Even when I knew that a shuttle flight was coming in, it was never an exact science to know the moment when it would happen, so there was no way I could prepare her for it.

The only way I ever had luck in helping her in this regard came when we had a very rare but very active thunderstorm in the days before I’d adopted Sheeba.

I’ve told this story before, but the short version is that I heard the storm coming, so went into my office, which was the bedroom on the street side of the apartment, and opened the blinds, then called Shadow onto my lap.

I’d watch for the lightning flash, knowing that thunder was coming, and then would start to tell her, “Her it comes. Here comes the boom. Here it comes. Ready?” or words to that effect, over and over, until… thunder. And then I would hug her and say, “Yaaay!”

I think I even got to the point where I could raise one of her paws up along with the “Yaaay!” part. But I managed to turn it into a game, and  I think this gave her a sense of control, which might have been all that it took.

After an evening of our thunder game, she seemed less frightened by loud noises after that.

When it came to play, though, that was Shadow’s big thing. Dazé would sometimes decide to indulge in a little fetch or tug-of-war, but it always felt more like she was doing it because she thought I wanted to. Meanwhile, Sheeba couldn’t be arsed with any of it. Toss a ball her way, and she’d just watch it pass, then give me a look like, “What? You expect me to get that for you? As if.”

Shadow, though, went nuts for things she could chase, toys she could “kill,” or any other way that she could basically just be a dog and bond with Daddy. By the time she passed, I had one of those plastic storage bins that was absolutely stuffed with her toys, most of them hard rubber or squishy plastic, because she could and would destroy any plush toy in two seconds.

And she knew most of them by name, too.

Did Sheeba care when Shadow was gone and the toybox was hers? Of course not.

Despite my presence and protection, Shadow was always a nervous girl, which sometimes turned into aggression toward other dogs but also manifested itself as her suddenly peeing on the floor. And she wasn’t doing either out of any kind of malice. It was just that something would trigger her fight or flight response, and that’s how she reacted.

So a big thing that Shadow taught me was the necessity of patience in dealing with issues like this. After all, if your first instinct when your dog is aggressive toward another one or panics and pees on the floor is to yell at or, far worse, smack it (never do this), you’re only going to make the problem far, far worse.

Gently lead them away from the dog they’re getting aggro at. Put on their leash and lead them outside for a walk when they squat on the carpet. And so on.

The key is not “discipline,” it’s “deflect.” Redirect a timid, scared, insecure dog to what you want them to do, then praise them when they do it.

That was actually what I was doing in the thunder game without realizing it. I never had to tell Shadow, “No! No shake. No scared. Bad!” Instead, when thunder came, I was just there for her and redirected her to having fun.

Success.

This lesson from Shadow really stuck with me, and it applies to people, too. That is, you can’t make dogs or people stop fearing things by yelling at them or berating them. Rather, you can only do it by calming them down, embracing them, and then slowly turning them in the right direction.

Farewell again, little girl. You were special while you were here, and always will be in my heart.

Momentous Monday: Dog day

For me, August 23 will always be a special day because it’s the day that I chose as the first family’s dog’s birthday. We had adopted Dazé around Thanksgiving when she was twelve weeks old.

In fact, it was about a week before Thanksgiving, and when I did the math backwards, I hit the end of August. T-Day had been on November 22nd, which is the earliest date it can possibly fall. I think that we must have adopted her the Saturday or Sunday before the holiday, which would have been either November 17th or 18th. Calculating backwards, this landed me on either August 25 or 26, but I didn’t like either of those dates.

Since my parents didn’t really care either way — Dazé to them was “just a dog,” after all — I set her birthday as August 23rd, mainly because I’d read somewhere that 23 was a very important number, and the 23rd of August was when Sirius first appears in the Northern Hemisphere.

Well, more or less. But Sirius is the dog star, August 23rd is close enough for jazz, and so that was from then on Dazé’s official birthday.

If I had ever believed in astrology, I would have put that date back one day, because no way that bitch was a Virgo. Dazé was a little lion. But I don’t believe in that bunk. I do believe that she had the personality she was partly born with and the one that I nurtured in her.

I’ve mentioned this here whenever I’ve mentioned Dazé — despite the fact that she was technically my mom’s dog, since Mom was the one at home all the time while Dad and I were at either work or school, Dazé never saw it that way.

I was her human from the second we first laid eyes on each other at the rescue shelter, and that was that.

It’s kind of funny, because in a strange way she wound up actually being a kind of surrogate mother to me, since my own mother died less than three years after we’d adopted Dazé. I wound up being responsible for her — the walks, the feeding, everything — and she did an excellent job, when I wasn’t, of giving me gentle reminders.

“Hey, dad — what time is it?”

Now, my dad had to take over when I moved off to college and dogs were not allowed in the dorms — not that I would have wished that atmosphere on any non-human living being at all. Hell, I couldn’t even keep a goldfish alive for more than two months because while I was home for a weekend, my roommate decided to see if it liked beer.

Hint: Goldfish do not do well when their breathing medium is flooded with alcohol.

I don’t hold it against him, though. We were both kids, really. Young and stupid and with all of our own hang-ups, since we were thrown together at 18. We were kind of oil and water for the time we shared a 12’x10’ cinderblock-walled room, but I can’t help but think that if we’d first met after our mid-20s, we would have gotten along fine.

And maybe if I hadn’t run home every weekend because it was only 26 miles, we might have bonded during those wild Friday and Saturday night dorm parties. But I had to run home to see my doggy.

That was the only real reason. Honestly, I figured that my dad could survive without seeing me again until my first year ended in May, and I could always do laundry at the dorm, even though it cost a few quarters and I had to do it myself.

Okay, I still had to do it myself at home, but the machines were free and much nicer.

College passed and I moved on to adulting and into an apartment with two… well, acquaintances. I wound up stumbling into the deal because a college friend was living in a three bedroom place with these guys (he was in a band with them) but then he got stupid and proposed to his girlfriend (Dude — you’re 22!) so was ready to move in with her, leaving a spot open.

So I popped into the master suite of bedroom and private bath — a fair trade-off for the lone parking space, I think — and was there for about a year and a half. And the two guys were not total strangers to me, since I had been the manager of the band they were in with my friend.

But, of course, the band went “poof” as soon as he slipped his… er, slipped that ring on her finger.

I was really tempted at that time to move Dazé in with me, but something told me to wait and I did. Eighteen months later, my two roommates went their separate ways. Meanwhile, it just so turned out that three of my co-workers — a single friend and another friend and his fiancée — were looking to move as well.

We found a very old house in Van Nuys — I think it was built originally as a tenant-worker home on a rancho around 1919. The construction was basically lathe and plaster, which meant that it had absolutely zero insulation.

Also, although the front house had two bedrooms and a bathroom, it was tiny. In fact, I’d almost venture to say that it had fewer square feet than the one-bedroom place I live in now.

But… the kitchen was really nice, and my small bedroom also happened to have one wall with built-in shelves and drawers and the like which gave not only a built-in desk and storage, but no need to move any kind of bulky furniture other than the bed with me.

It also had a nice backyard, a very ancient garage that was just as likely to have held a horse and carriage in its early days as a car and which we quickly converted into a mostly sound-proofed studio — I was in a band with the non-affianced roommate, another co-worker, and a bass-player we’d found through an ad.

Finally, there was a guest-house in the back, where said single roomie lived. It was essentially a studio with a bathroom off to the side, but it was remarkable for its 1920s-era tiled kitchen and the probably 1950-s era leather banquette diner-style booth in the, well, dining area.

Oddly enough, it was a lot more accommodating than the main house for small gatherings, so all of us spent a lot of time there.

Once I was settled in, I decided that this was the right place for Dazé, so I brought her to live with me, and life was awesome.

We did have a lot of parties but, thanks to the front door lock being gnarfy, we only ever let people in through the garage gate and back door, so there was never really any worry of her wandering out.

Not that she would have been inclined. It was clear at these parties that she had two jobs. Number one was keeping an out for daddy. Number two was scamming food from people and stealing beers when they weren’t looking.

Oh, yeah. I was both annoyed and oddly proud of her when I saw that one. Cue a debauched 20-something evening, bunch of people I don’t know because they’re mostly our bassist’s friends sitting or standing all around the living room, and one guy who seems about to nod off sits on the floor in front of the far end of the sofa and sets his beer down.

CLOSE ON: BEER ON FLOOR

Suddenly, a white, furry snout pokes its way around the edge of the sofa, black nose sniffing. The snout has a goatee, which flutters as the nose exhales sharply.

The snout moves forward, followed by THE DOG. She scans the room, in full-on Ethan Hunt mode. Then, realizing it is safe, she zeroes in on the objective: The beer bottle.

She grabs it with her mouth and backs out of sight.

ANGLE ON: AREA NEXT TO COUCH

THE DOG settles back with her reward, adjusts the bottle so that its mouth is in her mouth, then tilts sideways and chugs.

REVEAL THE DOG’s DAD peeking around the corner to look at what THE DOG is doing.

DAD

Well, fuck me sideways…

A totally appropriate way to present it, since I fancied myself a screenwriter at the time. Ah, to be young, stupid, and in Hollywood — and without having worked out enough to just go right into porn.

But Dazé actually did steal a beer, one time. She got really hyper and really silly fast, then started wandering around bumping into things until she managed to find the bedroom and then she never tried to steal a beer again.

Smart girl.

Meanwhile, she lived with us until stupid Dad managed to stick his dick in crazy and make the same mistake, slightly delayed, that the friend whose moving out had put Dad into these housing situations in the first place.

I.E. Dad agreed to move in with the first one-night stand who went out with him two more times.

Yeah, if I had a time machine, I’d go back and bitch-slap some sense into me, too.

Of course, what I didn’t see at the time was that this dude was manipulative, a total gas-lighter, abusive, and probably borderline psychotic, and one of his first demands was “No dog. I’m allergic.”

So what did I do? To my discredit, I thought with my dick and shipped Dazé back home to live with Dad again.

Fortunately, this little mistake didn’t last all that long, and by the time I threw his sorry ass out I was at least making enough to pay the entire rent on our WeHo studio so that I didn’t have to move soon, so Dazé came back and she was with me until her final breath.

That final breath was on April 30, 2001, and she had been with me through a ton of incarnations and ups and downs. And, despite all of the times I’d shuttled her back to my dad or nights I didn’t come home until nearly dawn, she never gave up on me.

Even at the very end, it was like she was hiding her pain and illness from me because she didn’t want to put me through it. And even though I happened to be unemployed (but with fuck you money) at the time, I did everything I could to try to save her.

It was not to be, and I had to let go of my best friend since forever.

And then, eleven days later, to fill the hole in my heart, I adopted Shadow, who was around a year old. I found her since I searched “American Eskimo,” since Dazé was probably American Eskimo and West Highland Terrier, and Shadow was presumed to be a mix of White German Shepherd and American Eskimo.

Shadow was only slightly bigger than Dazé, but the same shade of white, and even though the math didn’t quite work, her official birthday in my heart was also always August 23.

The big difference was that Dazé took care of me and taught me how to take care of myself. Shadow needed every single thing that Dazé ever taught me. Yeah. She was a needy girl. But so what?

So why did Shadow get Dazé’s birthday? Because it’s a special day for me and my dogs. On the other hand, Sheeba was the combo breaker in a lot of ways. I adopted her Labor Day weekend when she was eleven months old, but wound up pegging her birthday as November 14, mainly so that she wouldn’t have to share with Shadow.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention — my dogs always got crazy special birthdays — human food, as in “I’ll have what daddy’s having,” and a dog-friendly muffin with a candle. I used to let Dazé eat at the table with me because she was smart enough to know this only happened at special times.

Shadow and Sheeba, not so much. They got plates on the floor.

Meanwhile, it’s been way too long since I’ve gotten to celebrate a dog birthday, which I really wish I was doing today. Maybe, before too long, I’ll get to do it again.

An unpaid plug for a great person

I found out yesterday that my old veterinarian, Dr. Phil Caldwell, has finally published his book, and wanted to give him a plug, especially since today’s podcast is all about my late, great dogs, Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba

You can find the book at Amazon, The Pet Doctor’s Shoes, in either paperback or Kindle format, or Barnes and Noble, in paperback or for Nook. The title itself is a nice little inside joke for all of us who were his patients in L.A., which I was. Well, two of my dogs were — Shadow and Sheeba.

In fact, he was the only vet that Shadow ever trusted, which is saying a lot. unfortunately (for us) he left L.A. and the practice he’d been with a number of years ago — at least eight, because it was before Shadow got sick.

Luckily (for others) he’s still a vet, working for VCA in Palm Springs.

Dr PhilWhen he left L.A., he sent me an early draft of this book for feedback, and I loved it. His stories are moving and funny and really give a behind-the-scenes look at what Veterinarians have to put up with every day. I encouraged him to pursue it, although didn’t hear anything until now — and suddenly, ta-da! The book is out.

Full disclosure: I am not getting compensated in any way for this and, in fact, paid for the book myself. I just wanted to return a favor to a man who is compassionate, caring, very gentle with animals, and who remembered us all these years later — and who should go on to be the new James Herriot.

That comment is kind of ironic, but you’ll just have to buy and read the book to find out why. Please feel free to share this with friends and animal lovers everywhere.

Images: ©  Dr. Phil Caldwell

Three dog night

I’m rerunning this post in honor of the first anniversary of the death of Sheeba on May 1 of last year. I cannot believe I’ve made it so long without getting another dog — but 2020 was not the year for it.

My fans and followers may have wondered why the logo on my page is basically a flag with a dog on it, although my connection to the Dog Whisperer is probably a big clue. But the specific silhouette on that flag is my dog Sheeba, whom I adopted when she was eleven months old.

She was with me for the next fourteen and a half years and passed away one week ago today. It’s the first time in almost twenty years that I’ve been dog-less, but that last gap only lasted eleven days. There have been three dogs in total that I’ve wound up calling mine, although the first was originally the family dog and meant to be my mom’s.

As a tribute to Sheeba, here are the tales (and tails) of three dogs who were very special to me.

Dazé

She was the only dog of the three adopted as a puppy. My Mom and Dad found her at a rescue when she was twelve weeks old, although I’m really the one who picked her. Or maybe it was vice versa. In my youthful excitement, I dashed in ahead of my parents and soon came to this little white puppy who was just hanging out under an inverted rabbit cage.

I went over and knelt down and said “Hi,” and I swear I could see her thought processes as she gave me a look and a head tilt, then smiled back and sat down as if to say, “Okay. I choose you!”

I talked my parents into that one — her rescue name was Lucy — and we took her home.

My mother didn’t bond with her at all. In fact, at one point, she was on the verge of taking her back and we’d even made it as far as the shelter, but my seething anger changed her mind. Whether it was my dad who talked some sense into her or sudden Catholic guilt, I don’t know, but after that, there was never a question of taking the dog back.

I didn’t name her. My parents dubbed her Daisy, although I always spelled it D-A-Z-E with an acute accent (although I’ll stick with Daisy for the rest of this because reasons.) She attached to me almost immediately, and I was the one who trained her and taught her tricks, and she was a very fast learner.

She was also the only dog of mine that I have ever trusted 100% off-leash in public, although I never did it that often. But she was still the family dog, so there was a point when I’d moved out and couldn’t be with her for various reasons — starving student, dogs not allowed, and so on.

But once I’d gotten my first adult job and moved into a house with friends, it was time. My mother had died by that point and my dad had adopted a second dog, so it was a very easy task to talk him into letting me bring Daisy into my life full time.

Now while I was living in that house, I went out with a couple of friends around Thanksgiving to a bar in, I think, Silver Lake, and on the walk back to the car during a cold, west, misty late night, we saw something on the ground. Definitely an animal, with its head stuck in a Häagen-Dazs container.

Now, being an animal lover, I didn’t hesitate for a second to pick it up and pull that container off, even though we were in an industrial neighborhood and it could have easily been a rat. No. It was a puppy, and all I could do was bring it home.

The most likely explanation was that it was part of a litter from a guard dog at the shuttered auto repair yard that had wandered off, but I could bring it back in the morning.

One of my roommates vetoed that suggestion very logically. “If it got out once, it could again, so why let that happen?”

Thus did Toad come into Daisy’s life, and although the tiny pup eventually turned out to be a gigantic and very loving Rottweiler, Daisy was always the boss. She was fascinated with the pup from the very start, although eventually would play tricks on her, like act all excited to go outside until someone opened the door. Toad would race into the yard and Daisy would stroll back into the house, happy.

That was probably the most significant thing about Daisy. She was always boss dog without even trying. Later on, I lived in a house with two other adults and four other dogs, each of them huge. Keep in mind that Daisy weighed about 28 pounds and was what would be considered medium.

Didn’t matter. She was completely in charge, and all of those other dogs followed her rules, no matter what the humans said. Apparently, Daisy had banned the other dogs from “her” room, so even if I invited them in, they were having none of it.

She took good care of me for almost seventeen years, and it wasn’t until she abruptly stopped eating at the beginning of April that I figured out something was wrong and took her to the vet. (Hint: One of her nicknames acquired over the years was “Food Whore,” so the not-eating thing was serious.)

She was diagnosed with pancreatitis, normally treatable, but then two other problems popped up: kidney failure and cancer. And the problem there was that treating one would make the other worse and vice versa.

One day shy of four weeks after she stopped eating, we said good-bye at an animal hospital in Glendale.

Shadow

I had been told originally that Daisy was an American Eskimo and West Highland Terrier mix, although we didn’t have doggie DNA tests back then. Still, I searched online for those two breeds and available dogs, and found exactly one: An Eskie/White German Shepherd mix with an organization called German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County.

They had assumed she was part Eskie because while she looked like a white GSD, she was a lot smaller — about 35 pounds — and she was around a year old. But I was smitten, applied, had the interview and home inspection, and then was approved.

Two volunteers brought the dog to me. Her rescue name was Marina, and her initial reaction to me could not have been more different than Daisy’s.

The volunteers snuck out, and Marina refused to have anything to do with me. She went out on the patio and curled up in a corner, keeping a wary eye on me, and nothing I could do would get her to come in.

It gave me major flashbacks to my mom wanting to return Daisy. Had I made a huge mistake? So I decided to just ignore the dog and go about my business. Little did I know that this was exactly the right decision.

Eventually, I was in my bedroom when I heard the jingle of her dog tags at the door. Without looking at her, I sat at the foot of the bed, then just patted the space next to me. It took a while, but then I felt her jump onto the bed and come over and sniff me, and then she sat next to me.

That was the moment she decided that I was okay, and then became clingy as hell for the rest of her life — and that was okay.

Now, my parents’ choice of the name Daisy was totally arbitrary and something that had always bothered me, because that girl was way too tough for that name. If it had been my choice, I might have gone for something like Athena or Boudica.

So I decided that I was not going to call this girl Marina, but that I would also wait a week so that she would let me know what her name would be — which she very quickly did.

For one thing, she followed me everywhere, like my shadow. She also had the ability to suddenly appear in a room without making a sound, like a shadow. Finally, on walks at night, she would stop and stare into the shadows.

So… Shadow she was.

Personality wise, she was pretty much the opposite of Daisy. She was nervous and insecure and, like I mentioned, very clingy. She was still very smart, but definitely had separation anxiety. She also wasn’t great around strangers and could have fearful aggression toward other dogs — although I eventually figured out that a big cause of that was me being worried that she would show fearful aggression.

Daisy sometimes slept on the bed with me, while Shadow always did, or at least tried to. See, Daisy understood the rules: When daddy is having sexy time, I stay in my bed. Shadow, not so much, and even though we’d banish her beforehand, more often than not we’d suddenly become aware of her very quietly trying to sneak up onto the foot of the bed.

Like I said, clingy. Probably her most notable example of that happened whenever we had either thunderstorms (rare here) or fireworks (not so rare.) She would start shaking uncontrollably, then come to me and get on my lap.

Now, while she was entirely capable of just jumping up onto my lap while I was sitting at my desk, she wouldn’t do it under these circumstances. Instead, she’d put her front legs across my lap, and then laboriously climb the chair until she was up there, where she would sit and tremble.

I did manage to get her over thunder, though, by turning it into a game. We were in my second bedroom office (back when I had two bedrooms) during a storm, so I opened the blinds so we were looking at the street in front of the apartment.

When I saw a flash of lightning, I would happily tell her, “Here it comes. Here it comes,” and so on, then, when the thunder hit, I’d go, “Yay!” while hugging her. After a few tries, it actually seemed to do the trick.

There is some overlap between Shadow and Sheeba, but I’ll get to that in the next part. Suffice to say that Shadow taught me more by being not quite so perfect than Daisy ever did by definitely being perfect.

And, unlike Daisy, Shadow’s decline was not quick. She had suddenly started losing weight despite maintaining the same diet, so over the course of a few months, her vets tested her, and ruled out everything. She didn’t have cancer, or pancreatitis, or any kind of organ failure.

Yet… it got to the point where I had to swap her collar for Sheeba’s, because Shadow had gotten too skinny for hers to not slip off of her head. The inconclusive tests went on for well over a year until the morning I woke up and Shadow had lost all control of her legs and was stuck on the floor by the closet, having soiled herself.

I took her to the vet and they told me that there was nothing to be done. It was time. As with Daisy before, I absolutely insisted on being with her at the end, and I made sure that Sheeba was there, too.

And just like with Daisy before and Sheeba after, I had no qualms whatsoever about crying like a baby in front of both strangers and the staff at the Pet Doctors.

Shadow was a special girl because she leaned so heavily on me whereas Daisy had been so independent. Probably not a surprise, either, that she had the shortest lifespan of any of my dogs. But the thing she most reminds me of now in thinking about her is that yes, eventually the pain of loss does go away. It just takes time.

Sheeba

Which brings us to number three dog, and probably the most interesting of the bunch. Because of Shadow’s separation anxiety, I decided that she should probably have another dog around the house, so I headed over to the East Valley Animal Shelter to see what was there. This was the day before Labor Day, and I was immediately smitten by a small black dog  with a white “sword” on her chest and “spats” on her feet — if you’re paying attention to the pictures, you’ll see that I definitely have a “type.” What most struck me about her was that she seemed so calm despite being in a shelter, just sitting there by the front of the kennel, hanging out.

They estimated that she was about eleven months old.

I didn’t even find it out until later, but I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in, which is impressive thing number one. Number two: Apparently, she had been thrown out of a car. I didn’t find that part out until after I’d adopted her.

Oh, right. There was a waiting period until she was available, but you can bet your ass that I was in line at the shelter the second it opened at 7 a.m. the following Friday, and the dog who didn’t even have a shelter name came home with me.

This was before I worked for Cesar, but somehow I knew enough to not just shove Sheeba into Shadow’s space, so a friend took her in at first because step number one had been having her spayed, and she needed some healing time.

What I also didn’t know then is that it’s a very bad idea to put two female dogs together, related or not, and it should only be two males or a male and female. Oops.

In what we called the Dog House, with the four big dogs, two were male and one was female, so I suppose that worked things out, although Toad was also female, and Daisy did meet her as a puppy, although she still pulled shit on her.

Anyway, we finally introduced the two on a walk. By this point, following my “one week to name” rule, I had settled on Sheeba — using that spelling so it would have the same number of letters as Shadow — and for me it fit because, more than anything, Sheeba just seemed to have a calm and very regal air about her.

She always kept her head up proudly while sitting or lying prone, and there was just always something in her eyes that expressed some vast and ancient wisdom. This girl knew.

She was also always pretty aloof when it came to physical affection. She was never cuddly, and I could never get her to sleep on the bed. She was also never into toys at all. Play fetch? Sorry, that was beneath her.

But she excelled at hanging out with humans, and over the years she was the one — not Shadow (who was too nervous) — who came to various writing groups and rehearsals and to my box office shifts at ComedySportz (until another bitch said “No”)

I did bring Shadow to work as well while I was at the Dog Whisperer, although, again, she was definitely freaked out by it. Sheeba was… fascinated.

Everyone who ever met her loved her, and I can’t count the number of times a stranger on the street would complement her looks.

What did confuse people, though, was that the white dog was Shadow and the black dog wasn’t. I got tired of explaining how that came to be.

Once Shadow was gone, I couldn’t have been more grateful to have Sheeba around the house and, again, while she never was really cuddly, she did fall into a routine with me, and tipped her hand a couple of times that, yeah, she really did love me.

She did show excitement whenever I did come home from work after those times I couldn’t take her, and this led to one of her nicknames: “Monkey.” This came about because I’d come in the back door and hear her from the bedroom letting out excited sort of squeals that sounded like a monkey’s call.

One of the things I most loved doing with her was taking her to the dog park, because she would alternate between engaged and aloof. Sometimes, she would take off running to romp and play with the other dogs and just have a hell of a time. Others, she’d meander off on her own and take a long time to wander around the edges of the park by herself, investigating and sniffing everything.

And, every so often, after she’d wander a good bit away, she’d stop and look around until she spotted me, and then come running back.

Out of the three of them, her decline was the fastest. She was fine and doing well until the Tuesday evening before the end. That night, she started wandering around the apartment aimlessly, stopping to stare into corners, or trying to walk into narrow spaces between furniture and the walls.

Neither of us slept much that night, as I had to keep helping her go back to her bed. Wednesday morning she seemed better, but then that night it was more of the same and, this time, she started to get wobbly on her back legs.

Thursday morning, I actually did get her outside for a walk, but after she peed, she went a few steps and her back end plopped down. I had to carry her inside. The rest of the day, I was helping her up constantly and, tough little girl that she was, she refused to stay in her bed where she’d be safe.

I also noticed that she hadn’t eaten since Tuesday, and when I tried to give her food or water by hand, she’d only just flick her tongue at it instinctively, but not drink or eat anything.

Friday morning, I called her vet and the earliest they could see us was at 3:50 in the afternoon. I spent the longest day of my life just hanging out with Sheeba, bringing her up onto the couch with me to cuddle and comfort her, and otherwise trying to make her comfortable.

At 4:44 p.m., it was done and she was gone, and I came home to a house that has been the emptiest of any place I’ve ever been. Yes, it doesn’t help that this happened during lockdown. Then again, my dogs never have the best timing.

Will there be a dog number four? Oh, yeah. Inevitably. I just don’t know how soon.

Friday-free-for-all #55: Ideal pet, favorite brands, homeless, compliments

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments. And for some reason, this installment inadvertently wound up with a number of commercial plugs. Are you listening, potential sponsors?

If you could have any animal as a pet, what animal would you choose?

Well, this question is a no-brainer. A dog, period. There is no better pet than a dog, although I don’t think that “pet” is the right word. Companion, family member, protector, friend — I’ll take all of those words.

I’d also adjust the question to this one: “If you could accept any animal into your family, which one would it be?”

And the answer would still be “dog.”

What brand are you most loyal to?

Well, it depends on what product we’re talking about. For phones, smart and non, Samsung, period. They make good stuff, and I like it — and in a recent ranking battle of Samsung and Apple, Samsung won hands down.

Then again, Apple products are shit, and if you asked me which brand I hated the most, they’d win.

For computers, for ages it was Gateway or nothing, and I can’t count how many PCs and laptops I bought from them. Sadly, they are no more, but I’ll stick with Acer or Dell. Chips by Intel. And OS is always, always Microsoft.

Did. I mention “fuck Apple?” Because I should. Apple makes computers for computer users who do not understand computers at all. If an Apple/Mac crapbox breaks down, you’re screwed. If my PC craps out, I can fix it — and I have, many times over many boxes.

Mayo: Kraft rules, Best Foods drools.

Cars: This was a long-fought decision that spanned Datsun, Subaru, Honda, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Saturn, Toyota. And while the VW was fun to drive, the ultimate winner is… Toyota. As long as they keep making manual transmissions.

Supermarkets: Ralphs. As long as I don’t have to admit that Kroger exists.

Designer shit: Nautica, but only from Ross Dress for Less because, what? You think I want to pay that much for a pair of pants? Piss off.

What’s the first thing that you think when see a homeless person?

Why do we have to live in a society where this is even possible? Housing — like education and healthcare — should be a right, and at the very least there should be free government housing, no strings attached, for people who can’t afford more at the moment.

As it is right now, there is so much abandoned commercial and industrial property, that cities should just start moving in and converting places. You could house hundreds in abandoned malls, for examples, and give each of them their own space.

A typical department store is about 250,000 square feet. That’s 500 feet on a side, or any combination that multiplies to 250,000. You could fit several hundred 900 square foot apartments into that footprint, per floor.

Now remember that a typical suburban mall usually has anywhere from two to four anchor stores, so multiply those hundreds of units by that many, then add in all the other retail space, which is where you could put the two and three bedroom units.

There could be several different types of spaces, depending upon to whom they’d be open. One type would be for the truly homeless who have no job, no place to go, and tend to wind up living in tent cities or under freeway bridges. This would give them secure shelter, an address, and a chance to start over — a safe place to stay if, for whatever reason, they can’t go on back to make it in society.

Another type could be the sudden emergency shelter, designed for people who are being evicted but can’t find new housing right now, battered spouses with or without children who need to escape a bad situation, or those who have lost their homes to disasters natural or otherwise.

The final category would be twofold: One for students, as in those going to college, so that they could focus on studies and not worry about rent or having to work in addition to school in order to survive. The second would be for seniors on fixed incomes who don’t own property or have the means or income to maintain what they do own.

All of the shelters would also create jobs in various areas from management to maintenance, and by keeping some retail — like grocery and drug stores and limited food courts — they could provide people with affordable necessities right outside their door.

But, really, in a country like the U.S., there should not be a single homeless person. We need to take care of everyone.

What was your favorite restaurant when you were in university? How about when you were a child?

Well, part of that is a tricky question, isn’t it?

In university, I’ll ignore the great on-campus restaurant we did have which was not a part of our pre-paid food service, but which had amazing burgers, and was designed as the practicum for upper-level majors in the field of restaurant management and etc. I can’t remember whether it was called The Lair or the Lion’s Den, although either would have fit, since our team was the Lions. (To complicate matters, there was a bar off-campus in town which had whichever name that the dining hall didn’t.)

The meal card cafeteria for students, BTW, was named after the food service contractor that ran it, SAGA — which, as we always pointed out, was just “A GAS” backwards. Many a “freshman fifteen” was born in that place.

But, having been a theatre minor, the hands-down favorite university restaurant answer is… Denny’s. and for four simple reasons…

  • They were open 24 hours, meaning that we could go there after the end of a show any night of the week, or especially after tech day hell.
  • They had comfort food for days, and that’s all that we wanted — plus breakfast at any hour.
  • They were cheap as fuck, meaning they fit a college budget. Plus free refills.
  • Chances were that we knew our server from school, so we could stay extra-long, got treated really well, and also got a bit generous in tipping.

Now, the second part of the question is trickier because I had no choice in restaurants as a kid. But I do remember two. Well, one by name very well, the other as a life-long mystery.

The one I remember well is the International House of Pancakes, aka IHOP, and my parents would take me there now and again and it was awesome. There were pancakes. And other breakfast stuff. And all kinds of syrup. And the roofs of the buildings were really cool — two steep blue A-frames that crossed each other.

The one I don’t remember as well, we only went to a few times, and this was when my parents took me on a drive-up vacation to San Francisco when I was about four, meaning “Brain still in mushy stage when memories don’t stick yet.”

My perception was that every night we stayed there for about a week, we went to some drive-in/sit-down combo restaurant in a big, round, probably Googie style building, where I’d have the

most amazing chocolate shake, served in a metal cup.

I don’t remember whether we drove there or walked, or whether we ate in the drive-through or went inside. For all I know, it could have actually been the diner attached to the motel we stayed at (TraveLodge) or a stand-alone restaurant across the street.

I just remember it being on top of a hill, it was always after dark, and the inside was brightly lit but the walls were all glass. I have more vivid memories of the coldness and the taste of the shake.

The only things I clearly remember from that trip, sort of, are these: First, a toy my parents bought me in Chinatown with a box and sliding lid — slide the lid open and a dragon popped up.

Second, a tour through the city on the upper deck of a converted London-style bus.

Third, how we missed being trapped in an elevator by seconds after a blackout on Fisherman’s Wharf when an underground transformer blew up — we heard the bang and saw black smoke coming up from a street maintenance cover.

Finally, I remember how we drove home with half a dozen loaves of sourdough bread warming in the back window of our car all the way down.

What was a random compliment that someone gave you that really stuck in your memory?

This one comes from the before times, the long ago, when we were not quarantined or isolated, and I was still doing improv and working box office at the theatre way back when, and one of the company members from the Sunday Team, who shall remain nameless, flat out told me, “I appreciate you.” And that was a total warm fuzzy.

I mean, it’s just such a simple statement, but it comes with so much good will and gratitude, and I recommend trying it yourself. People really seem to appreciate being appreciated, and it really does endow a sense of value.

Momentous Monday: Dog talk

Here’s a blast from the past, an article from before the quarantine which is still relevant today. In fact, this one is even more relevant because, when I wrote it in 2019, I had no idea that all three of my dogs would be past tense by now.

I’ve noticed a really interesting phenomenon with two of the three dogs I’ve owned as an adult. Well, technically one-and-a-half, because the first one, Dazé, started out as the family dog that we adopted after the first dog died. Basically, we started out together when I was still doing the whole K-12 thing and lived with my parents when I went to college.

But although she was supposed to have been my mom’s dog, Dazé was having none of that. She decided that I was her human almost from the beginning — we adopted her at 12 weeks old — and when I finally moved out on my own after college and as soon as I was able to, she moved in with me and then never left. She was probably the most intelligent dog I’ve ever met, and also one of the most easy-going. She loved people and other dogs, and yet somehow always managed to be the boss dog in any pack. The first place I moved her to, there was a Rottweiler mix that started as a puppy but who grew into a giant of a dog that could stand on her hind legs and look me in the eyes, and I’m 6’2”. Didn’t matter. That dog, Toad (my former roommate has an odd but wonderful sense of humor) totally deferred to Dazé in everything, and all it took was a look from my dog. She never bared her teeth or made threats or anything. It was amazing to watch.

This carried on later when I lived in a house with two other guys and four other dogs, all of which were much bigger. Dazé weighed about 30 pounds, while the other dogs each weighed at least 90. That didn’t matter. It was a house rule, at least among the dogs, that none of them were allowed in “my” room, even if I tried to beg and coax them in. I remember one particular night when the roomies were both out of town and it was storming something fierce. I’d let one of the dogs, Sarah (an Irish Wolfhound, so you know the scale) into the backyard because she gave me that “Gotta pee” look. But when she was done, I decided to let her in via my room, which had a sliding door that opened onto the yard, rather than through the kitchen. So I opened it, called her in, and despite the downpour and sad look on her face, she really, really didn’t want to.

And what was Dazé doing? Just sitting on the bed, looking calm and harmless. I finally managed to get Sarah to come in, but she slinked so low to the ground and dashed through so fast, that the message was obvious:

“SorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorryokayImout.”

And Dazé just stayed on my (ahemn — her) bed, doing nothing.

I never really did figure out how she had this super power, although I did see one crack in it at a New Year’s Day party held by a playwright friend of mine. Her theory was that since we could never really know the exact birth dates of our dogs unless they came from a breeder (hint: they never should) then we might as well just peg it to the start of the year and go from there. So everyone was invited to bring their dog.

All well and good, Dazé gets along with dogs, but then a party guest who had snorfed a little too much herbal refreshment started giving Milk Bones to my dog and the hostess’ dog, Hank, who was a pretty hefty yellow Lab mix. Well, the inevitable happened. She tossed one too close between them, Dazé went to grab it, and Hank decided to put her head in his mouth. It was more of a warning than an attack, but she ducked and fled, and when she came back to me — and it was very clear that she was in “Daddy, daddy, help” mode — I was able to pick her up like she was a Kleenex. She’d gone so limp in fear that she really seemed to weigh nothing. There was a tiny nick on her head that was bleeding, and it was the one and only moment I ever got to see her lose her mojo.

Flash forward to current dog, who has a lot in common with Dazé, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Dazé finally passed, and she came to me as a fearful rescue, a white German Shepherd mix who started out terrified of me until I just ignored her, but once she realized that it was okay for her to sleep in my bed with me and that I gave her food, she bonded totally. Just like with Dazé, I was her human. However, she never really developed the talent that Dog 1 and Dog 3 did, and although I loved her very much, I have to say that she was the problem child I had to have in order to learn.

When Shadow was five, I decided that she needed a companion, and so I adopted Sheeba, who was 11 months old, and who had been thrown out of a car for reasons I’ll never understand. What struck me about her in the shelter, though, was that she just seemed so calm — and this was even more amazing when I found out on adoption day later that week that I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in after being saved from the streets.

Sheeba is a lot like Dazé. Put her in a pack situation, and she goes into boss mode. The big difference with her, though, is that it’s really clear that she does it physically instead of mentally. Dazé would just give a look. Sheeba tends to get in the other dog’s face and puff up. (By the way, the two of them were just about the same size.)

And yes, she’s gotten into her share of fights — several times with Shadow, and once or twice with friends’ dogs. These mostly revolve around food, as in, “Bitch, back off my dish, or Ima hurt you.” A big thing I learned when I had both Shadow and Sheeba was this, too: As a human, do not try to impose the alpha/beta roles, because it will lead to disaster. See, in my mind, I did the typical parent thing. “Older kid gets first dibs and such.” Yeah, that works with humans. With dogs? Not so much.

If I’d been aware enough from the start, then I would have made Sheeba alpha, and that would have made both of them happy. Instead, I tried to make Shadow alpha, which only managed to piss off Sheeba and make Shadow even more nervous.

Oops.

But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Dazé is that dogs really do speak to us, too. We just have to learn to listen. Now, I’m not sure whether I’m the one who took so long to pick up on it, or she’s the one who took so long to figure out how to train me, but… during the last five or six years of her life, I started to notice that she would approach me with intent, make eye contact, and then basically create a subject-verb-object sentence (SVO) by where she was looking.

The funny thing is that this is actually the way that English works, too. “You do this” is probably one of the simpler examples. Stripped down in dog talk, though, it omits finer points of vocabulary like adjectives and adverbs, although, to be honest, these really seem to come out of attitude — a really impatient, huffy dog is coloring the entire sentence with “fast” or “soon.” In a lot of ways, that’s like any form of sign language, where the tone of the sentence isn’t portrayed in what the hands are doing, but rather in the face and expressions.

In that context, it makes total sense, because our dogs have basically had to figure out how to teach us how to understand their signing. And that’s pretty amazing.

Both Dazé and Sheeba eventually started doing this, and it always took the same pattern. After they’d gotten my attention, they’d make eye contact, which meant “You.” Then they would pointedly turn their head to look at something, so literally using an action as an action word, although I think that “Dog” probably only has one universal word that can mean do, make, get, or give. This really isn’t all that far off from human languages, which not only frequently have one verb that can mean all of those things, but it’s also one of the most irregular verbs in the language. (Side note: It’s almost a guarantee that the verb for “to be” was, is, and/or will be ridiculously irregular through all tenses in every language.)

Anyway, so… look at me, then turn the head — subject, verb. And what happens next? Object, which is where the dog looks — their bowl, meaning “food,” the sink, meaning “water,” the cupboard, meaning “treat,” or the door, meaning “walk,” or… anything else. The point here is that the need the dog expresses is not abstract, and that is probably where the species separate.

After all, a five-year-old can tell its parents, “I want to go to Disneyland when school is out.” A dog, not so much. While they may have a sense of language, they do not have a sense of time. If you doubt that, compare how excited your dog is to see you come home after five minutes vs. five hours. Not really a lot of difference, right?

A long time ago, humans naively believed that we were the only species to develop language, but that’s clearly not true. If we define language as set of syntactic methods to communicate, then most species have language, and humans are not unique. We are probably unique in the sense that we alone use written or inscribed symbols to represent the sounds that make up our language, which is what you’re reading right now, but we do not absolutely know that we are the only ones.

The point, really, is this: We all need to step back from this idea that humans are the superior life forms (hint: we’re not) and, instead, start to listen to all of the others, and to nature itself. If you’re lucky enough to have pets of any kind, start to pay attention and listen. They may be trying to tell you something, and are getting totally frustrated that you’re too stupid to understand. Dog knows that this is how Dazé finally taught me.

Did I mention that the first couple of times she tried the “You give food” thing with me, she actually gave me a dirty look when I didn’t get, audibly sighed in frustration, and then pointedly repeated it until I finally got it? Because that is exactly what she did. And that is why I got it the first time Sheeba did it. Which is interesting in itself, because it means that one generation of dog managed to teach me a language that I was able to understand in a much later generation, and, holy crap, how amazing is that?

Image: Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

How have your pets communicated with you? Let us know in the comments!

“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.

Sunday nibble #45

Keep in mind that I try to keep my post-writing a week or two ahead of the dates they go live, so for all I know everything could have gone downhill in the past week, given events from last weekend, which is when I’m writing this.

The Sunday Nibble is back from hiatus, which began with my Christmas Countdown, and the last installment was the eighth and last in a series of short pieces I’d originally written with the intention of publishing them on a friend’s website, The Flushed.

The series title was “A short guide to knowing your shit,” and it fit right in with The Flushed, which is about all things having to do with the bathroom — although the title they would have gotten used the word “poop” instead, because they’re more PG-13. But the series never ran there.

However… I am now also guest-blogging four times a month over at Paw.com, a site all about pets, mostly of the canine and feline variety. I wound up with this job because I used to write for “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan’s ecommerce website, and one of my former co-workers there recently became Creative Director for a company that does content creation for various client sites.

He contacted me almost immediately to offer the gig, and how could I say no? It was a natural fit. Check them out, and yes, they do sell stuff, specializing in beds, blankets, and other pet-friendly products.

So yes, it’s another case of “it’s who you know,” but Creative Directors are good people for artists and writers to know in general, since they tend to have a lot of clout within their organizations. And, being Creative Directors, they hire us — the creatives.

Also, from time-to-time, I’ll still post the random movie review to a site called Filmmonthly.com, which I founded two decades ago with a pair of fellow film-lovers, one of whom was the other roommate during the tenure of the very bizarre Strauss, about whom I wrote on Friday, and the other was the roommate who took over when Strauss abruptly departed — the one whose cousin accidentally torched their kitchen with a toaster oven.

We ran the thing for a good while, and all three of us were the publishers, racking up a ton of reviews. Eventually, we all stepped back and turned it over to the next generation, although for a long time our prior work was there — until one of the people trusted with the site at some point muffed up and wound up losing a lot of the older files forever.

Things that make you go “Grrrrr.” Unfortunately, if you search my name and filmmonthly, you’ll get a ton of hits because, as publisher, my name was on every page. Most of them will not be my work.

But I did recently review a low-budget adaptation of the King Arthur story that surprisingly did not suck, so there’s that. There was also a fun little indie comedy about incest, Call Me Brother, that I also liked and reviewed.

I’ll share another secret with you. The Christmas and New Year Countdowns are my way of giving myself a vacation. I program everything to publish automatically before Thanksgiving arrives, and then on the Friday after, boom. I don’t need to write or post anything for over a month.

This works out great IRL, because this also coincides with the frantic tail-end of my busy season at work, which pretty much entails seven-day weeks and ten hour days from October 15 to December 7. Every. Single. Year.

The only exception, of course, is when the Out of the Blue Oxford Boys drop their charity single for the current year. That always gets its own special post, because they and what they do are both very special.

Which is to say that, looking back at 2020, I’m kind of amazed that I managed to post something every single day when there were many days that I felt no motivation — and I think that’s true of a lot of us who lived through lockdown.

Kind of ironic, really. All the time in the world to write, but it was hard to get motivated. Except… it did give me time to focus in on The Rêves, which I started serializing here weekly back in July, long before I actually finished it.

And now it’s 2021, and it feels like we’re going to have a new beginning, maybe, but it won’t be soon and it won’t be fast. What it will probably be is the final general realization that if we want to fight this thing, we do have to take it seriously and sacrifice.

It may not seem like it, but “sacrifice” is something that Americans can be good at when they actually do it, and when they’re not being cheer-led on by greedy, selfish leaders.

Nobody really complained when security tightened up after 9/11 and it seemed like it took an anal probe and two blood samples to get into any government building. No one complained back when they could only buy gas on days based on their license plate number.

No one complained when everything was rationed during WW II. And on, and on.

Now, I don’t know what percentage of people who voted for a certain losing presidential candidate last year are also staunch anti-maskers, but I can give you these numbers. Out of the total U.S. population, only 23% voted for the outgoing incumbent. But if we cut that number down to “all people eligible to vote,” whether they do or not, then it’s 38%.

The other candidate got 25% of the total population, and 42% of all people eligible to vote, although based on the actual vote count, it came out as 52% to 48%.

Or, in other words, for the politically engaged, a divided world, but if you look at the total population, one thing stands out. The selfish people fall to around one-fifth of the population.

And that is very hopeful, because there are more of us who can be good Americans and sacrifice, whether we vote or not (and why the hell don’t you, if you’re eligible?) than there are greedy Americans who want to burn it all down.

So… for every Karen, there are four Americans willing to stand up to her shit. And that is how we are going to turn it around in 2021, albeit slowly, and finally see normalcy return in 2022.

Simply put, there are still more Americans willing to do the right thing. We’re just not as vocal or visible as the selfish ones who like to kick and scream like infants to get their way. But their tantrum will end soon, once they’ve woken up to reality. If they ever do.

Okay, it’s another Sunday Nibble turned into a full buffet, but that’s okay. It feels like I’m coming out of hibernation, so there’s a lot on my mind.

Sunday nibble #31: Two ladies, two bitches (Part 1 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the story into two parts. This is the first.

Dazé and Shadow

I’ll tackle that choice of title right off, because it is absolutely literal. Today is August 23, and that happened to be the day that I picked — because it was closest to the likely one — for the birthday of two of my late, great dogs: Dazé and Shadow. So yes, in the absolute definition of the word, bitches, but they were my bitches.

Okay, in reality, I was theirs, but that’s why I’m including them here. The bulk of the article is in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women in America finally being given the right to vote — and it is shameful as hell that it took 132 years from the ratification of the Constitution to the Amendment that fixed this major defect.

August was also the birth month of one of the women on this list. I don’t know when the second one was born, but I do know that the third was not born in August.

But I include those two dogs of mine as an example of how nurturing and protective feminine energy as opposed to masculine. In fact, it’s why I will only ever adopt female dogs.

Oh, I’ve known male dogs. I’ve lived with more than a few, interacted with many, and ultimately they are for the most part… well, go search for YouTube videos of “Stupid Things Frat Boys Do,” and you’ll get the idea.

Male dogs are energetic, and goofy, and they’ll hump your leg when you let your guard down, but they clearly don’t really have as much going on upstairs as their distaff counterparts.

I’ve written about it before, but Dazé always ruled the roost, no matter how many other dogs were around and how much bigger they were than her, and she did it without ever showing aggression. She was totally devoted to me, but never submissive. It always felt like an equal partnership.

Shadow could not have been more different in the sense that, while she was totally devoted as well, she was also completely submissive and dependent. Dazé saw it as her job to take care of me. Shadow saw me as the one who was supposed to take care of her.

But it was a pair of valuable lessons that led to a really amazing relationship with dog #3 (not born in August), Sheeba. Dazé taught me what a dog could do for me. Shadow taught me what I could do for a dog.

I guess that Sheeba must have been up on her Hegel, because with her it was a combination of both; a wonderful give and take in which we took care of each other. Dazé never needed my help and Shadow could never give me hers. With Sheeba, it truly was a two-way street.

That’s probably a big part of the reason that she was the only dog whose loss did not immediately inspire me to go out and rescue another, and it’s going on four months now. Sure, current events in the year of several plagues have also had an impact, but I’ve done surprisingly well without. At least for now.

But, to get to the important part: Here are three women who have had an enormous impact on my life.

Gloria

Okay, most people knew her by that name. I knew her as Mom, She taught me some of my most important skills: never put up with anyone’s shit, always question authority when they seem wrong, and cooking and baking are true and enjoyable art forms.

Keep in mind that my mother died when I was fairly young, after a long mystery illness that only seemed to be made worse by medical treatments from male doctors (only) who would never even for a second take seriously my mother’s attempts to tell them how the symptoms changed depending on what part of her cycle she was in.

“Oh, that’s all in your head,” these men who never had periods would tell her in that mansplaining tone. Looking back, I think the whole thing started with a bout of acid reflux that led to hyperventilation that happened (coincidence?) on my 13th birthday.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Mom was brought up with huge amounts of Catholic guilt and body shame, so wasn’t exactly that in touch with things. Looking back, to be honest, I’ve had the sudden “feel like you can’t breathe because your windpipe suddenly shut” thing a few times in my life, but I very quickly learned the cure for it: Hold your breath.

And yeah, I’ve felt guilty that I wasn’t there for her but, then again — I was 13. I was in school, like I was supposed to be. So it was just the next door neighbor there to rush her to the ER, toss her into the hands of the un-empathetic male doctors, and I think over the next few years they managed to medicate her to death.

Since her family all lived on the east coast, I really lost contact with them for a long time, since I didn’t have their phone numbers, or the wherewithal to fly or drive out there, and my dad certainly wasn’t doing it. But when I reconnected to my cousins and surviving aunts not that long ago via social media, one thing became immediately clear.

They were all like her, so they were all like me, at least in all the good ways: Stubborn, opinionated, feisty, creative, and feckin’ clever Irish-Americans.

This was partly what drove her to the west in the first place, because she had a bird’s eye view of her own mother’s hypocrisy when it came to religion. The Catholic Church ruled all! Except… only the church that the Irish people went to. The Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Latvians may have gone to Catholic churches as well, but they were filthy immigrants.

And it was perfectly fine if my mother invited her best friend Beverly to come to Grandma’s church on Sunday, but god forbid that my mother would even be allowed to go to Beverly’s church, because they were some weird, unacceptable Armenian Orthodox cult!

But the real biggie — and the one that actually wound up having the greatest impact on my own life, although I didn’t know it until long after she’d died — was that her first marriage not only sent her fleeing to the west, but it had everything to do with her relationship to me.

Long story short, she’d married her (Polish Catholic) high school boyfriend, George, at 18. She got knocked up (though not right away), he got drunk and violent a lot, and in her eighth month he gave her what we quaintly term “A Catholic abortion.”

That is, he pushed her down a flight of stairs and she miscarried, and there went the woman who might have been my older sister.

She had the marriage annulled (the good Catholic way!) then headed west, to shock her mother by marrying a much older and divorced (gasp!) man with three adult kids who was maybe Protestant (what?) but definitely not Catholic (clutch the Rosary!).

They married, she got knocked up while they lived in a tiny Hollywood apartment, moved to their suburban home when she was about five months in — and then wound up delivering me two months prematurely back in Hollywood and, apparently, she freaked the hell out.

In all honesty, why wouldn’t she? She’d already lost one child in the 8th month, and here I was, popped out in the 7th month and not completely baked, so they had to stick me into an incubator. Somehow, it worked, I survived, and I’m still here and, oddly enough, I also managed to be the tallest member of my family on both sides and among three generations, at least.

Yeah, I don’t know what’s up with that part, either. Apparently, all of my grandparents barely grazed five feet. I topped six, and I only have one nephew who came close.

Anyway, the result of my mom’s life experience up to my birth was that she was ridiculously protective of me. Fearing losing me like she had her daughter, I would never say that she was clingy and suffocating. Rather, she did what she could to keep me close to home.

Good or bad? I don’t know. She certainly kept me from being over-adventurous, something that didn’t change until after her death — but I’ve always wondered: If she hadn’t done that, would I still be alive now, or would I have died in some stupid incident before I turned sixteen?

On the other hand, if she had lived on to a normal age, and if she were still around today (entirely possible), would our relationship be loving, or would she have long since driven me absolutely nuts? I have no idea. What I do have is one childhood incident that, to me, demonstrated her absolute devotion to keeping me safe.

I was in the 3rd grade, meaning that I was about 8 years old, and was out sick for a day. The procedure at the time was for returning kids to turn in a note from a parent at the office excusing the absence — basically, “This is Jon’s (parent.) He was out sick yesterday, but is feeling well enough to return today. Signed (parent.)”

Welp, up to this particular day, my father was always the one who wrote and signed the notes. He was also an architect, so he could writer block letters like a goddamn laser printer, and his signature was in perfect cursive.

Mom? Well… she was born left-handed and went to Catholic school, so what do you think? Yep. They basically tied her left hand to a chair, forced her to learn to write with her non-dominant hand and so, as an adult, her handwriting was even worse than mine at, oh, I don’t know… eight years old?

You see where this is going, right?

Dad forgot to write the note that day, so Mom did, and I took it in. An hour or two into class, I got summoned to the principal’s office (his name was George Linnert, btw, a total dick, and he is probably long since dead by now) to be accused of forging the note.

I tried to tell him that my mom wrote it, and if he just called her, she would tell him.

Nope. He was being a total dick, so he told me to write down, “I did not write this note.” And then he refused to believe me and threatened suspension, plus calling my parents in to tell them what an evil, evil boy I was.

Guess what happened when I told my parents about it that evening?

Yep. Mom went ballistic, and the next morning she did something so freaking amazing that I still remember every moment of it. I was going to walk to school, but she said, “No. I’m driving you.”

Okay, cool. Except that… while Mom has her license, she also absolutely hates to drive and never does it, and is nervous as hell. Sure, it’s not all that far to the school — maybe a mile at most — but I think she wanted to make a point.

So we hope into the Ford, she very, very cautiously backs out of the driveway, then takes the back streets to the school, leads me up the steps by my hand and into the principal’s office, very politely tells me that she’s here for a meeting with Mr. Linnert…

…and then the second we walk in the door, she proceeds to rip him not a second, or a third, but maybe even up to a fourth asshole and all I can do is just stand there in awe of this woman, this powerhouse, my mother, taking the piss out of an authority figure that, up until this moment, all of us had feared like the grim reaper.

I don’t even remember what exactly she said, except that it involved questioning his intelligence, asking if he got off on intimidating little boys, and whether he actually knew how telephones worked?

End result? She marched his ass to my classroom, we all entered, and he groveled and apologized in front of the teacher, my, my mom, and the entire class.

It was goddamn glorious. But I guess that’s why she was named Gloria in the first place.

R.I.P., Mom.

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