Momentous Monday: Dog talk

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted one year ago but which is still relevant today. In fact, this one is even more relevant because, when I wrote it exactly one year ago, 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 it 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!

Three dog night

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, who 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 Dazé. 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 Dazé 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 Dazé’s life, and although the tiny pup eventually turned out to be a gigantic and very loving Rottweiler, Dazé 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 Dazé would stroll back into the house, happy.

That was probably the most significant thing about Dazé. 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 Dazé 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, Dazé 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 Dazé 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 Dazé’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 Dazé. 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 Dazé. 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.

Dazé sometimes slept on the bed with me, while Shadow always did, or at least tried to. See, Dazé 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 Dazé ever did by definitely being perfect.

And, unlike Dazé, 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 Dazé before, I absolutely insisted on being with her at the end, and I made sure that Sheeba was there, too.

And just like with Dazé 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 Dazé 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 Dazé 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.

Sunday Nibble #7

Okay… my dog is one little badass. Here’s the story. I came home Monday night, which is one of my two stupid-long days on which I don’t come home until close to fourteen hours after I leave. So I come home last Monday night to find Sheeba lying on her side on the living room floor, trying desperately to get up by slapping her left paw on the floor, and I freak.

I mean, I have no idea how long she’s been lying there. This could have happened five minutes after I left, or five minutes ago. I try to help her up, but she has no traction and her feet slide out from under her on the hardwood floor. I finally have the insight to make the floor not-slippy, so I grab a big bath towel and spread it out, then lift her up and get her onto that.

Some success. She manages to stand, a little wobbly, so I lead her off hoping to take her on her walk, but as soon as she’s on wood… splat. Figuring that the problem is the floor, I get her leash, put it on her, then pick her up and carry her outside and set her on the grass and, indeed, she’s suddenly much more stable, manages to pee, and we take a bit of a walk until, suddenly, plop. Her back legs drop her on her ass.

I carry her home and wonder, “Okay, is this it?” Because, unfortunately, if it’s anything that costs anything, I can’t afford it right now. I bring her inside and put her to bed and spend a lot of the evening crying.

Now, oddly enough, because some of the maintenance crew is coming in on Tuesday, I’m going to have to leave Sheeba shut in the bedroom, which I consider a blessing in disguise. She won’t have the chance to wander out and strand herself in the living room. So I move her food and water into the bedroom, put towels down so that she has a non-slippery surface to walk on, leave a note on the door in Spanish and English saying “Please don’t come in,” and head off to work.

When I come home, she’s still in bed, and it looks like she hasn’t really moved all day. And despite my urging, she tries to get up, but can’t. And it puts me back in my funk. About a half an hour after I get home, I look in and see that she’s stood and moved toward her bowls, but isn’t eating, then watch as she goes back to bed.

I do the only thing I can, go back to my desk in the living room, but about a half hour later, I hear her tags rattle, look over, and she is standing in the bedroom doorway and giving me this look as if to say, “Yo. Forgetting something?”

I go to the kitchen to get her leash and poop bags and although she’s moving haltingly, she is walking, and makes it into the kitchen, and this is when I’m reminded how damn amazing she is.

This girl is Uma Thurman in the “Move your pinkie” scene in Kill Bill. She’s the one who pulled herself from “can’t even move my ass” to “Here I come.” And the only help I had to give her after that was to pick her up and carry her down the steps and then back up. Otherwise, she took her damn sweet time enjoying a stroll and sniffing everything, and not once falling down.

Once we came back in, she wandered around the apartment, and it was almost like she was practicing and exercising, and willing herself to get better. And I swear that when she caught me looking at her in amazement, the look she gave me back was, “What? I got this.”

And she did, plus she left me in complete fear on Monday night of having to finally say good-bye and have the vet give her the blue juice to thinking, “Okay, no. This bitch is going to fight to the end.”

She turned fifteen last November, which means that she’s about 78 in human years — no, it is not seven years per year for dogs, sorry. But I really swear that she’s going to pull a Betty White on me, and that’s a good thing. No. It’s a great thing.