“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.

Momentous Monday: Homecoming

May 11th has become a date inextricably linked with all three of my dogs because of events a week ago today.

On May 11, 2001, #2 Dog, Shadow, came home to me for the first time. It was exactly eleven days after I’d said good-bye to #1 Dog, Dazé. Last week, May 11, 2020, #3 Dog, Sheeba, came home for the last time, and her ashes joined her sisters’, completing the shrine to them that I started over 19 years ago.

I finally also got around to printing their memorial pictures in the same style and finding nice standing frames for them, getting them all arranged, but then realizing to my great disappointment the total mismatch of funerary urns, as it were.

Over the years — and I think it has to do with the growing importance of our fur babies (at least when it comes to marketing to them) those ash containers have gotten a lot fancier.

Back in 2001, Dazé got a can wrapped in paper. Note that the paper is blue although she was a girl. I don’t think it’s because they mixed up the dogs. Rather, I think that it was whoever was running things at the time took one look at her goatee, assumed “boy dog,” and picked blue.

It was a common enough mistake in life, and for exactly the same reason. Humans assume “goatee = male,” forgetting that dogs have a lot less sexual dimorphism than humans do. Hint: if the only way to tell the difference is to flip them over and look at their junk, then the dimorphism is very low.

And, of course, humans throw a ton of artificial dimorphism on top of the moderate degree that we already have in all of those secondary characteristics — namely body shape, body hair, vocal range and timbre, and whether taking your shirt off will offend prudes. But I do digress.

Shadow also got a can, this one papered in pink, but it came inside of a nice brocaded box in a pale blue decorated with an abstract gold paisleyesque pattern.

Finally, Sheeba only got a vacuum-sealed bag, but in a lovely locking cedar box with a plaque with her name on it. This one also came with a paw-print — something that I think had been an option with Shadow that I’d turned down — a fancy certificate of cremation, a little wooden heart with her name engraved on it, a paper heart on the whole thing with her name and my last name on the cord on the mesh bag everything came in, a packet of forget-me-not seeds, and a tiny vial with a bit of her hair in it.

Wow. Considering that Shadow and Sheeba went just under five years apart, Sheeba’s send-off was quite a bit fancier.

At first, I was upset that I don’t have exactly the same memorial for each of them, and even while Sheeba was alive had considered getting matching containers for all three of them. But then when looking at the rag-tag collection tonight, something struck me.

They absolutely should not be the same because none of these dogs was at all like the other two, and that is what made them special. And the more I considered the ways they came back to me, the more I realized that each container actually reflected the dog in it much more accurately than the crematory could have ever predicted, and this made me very happy.

After all, I have their collars with the containers as well, and all three of those are very different.

So Dazé came back in a simple, possibly misgendered, metal can. And that suits her perfectly, because when it came to training and dealing with her, she was the simplest dog I’ve ever had. No frills, no drama, didn’t need anything fancy.

Her favorite “toys” were old socks, and her prized possession was a huge sock-toy I made out of my old, worn-out ones. It was about the size of a large ferret, and she loved nothing more than to pick it up and “kill” it over and over, or get me to toss it around the room for her to hunt.

Like the can, Dazé was pretty basic and, in fact (as a friend pointed out when I told them this) you could say that she was the original basic bitch.

She wouldn’t have disagreed.

Shadow got the same can in pink, but inside of a simple box, and to me this represents her also sweet and simple nature, but one which came with a need to be protected by me. She really didn’t like to show her true self outside of the few humans she trusted. And, like with the box, no one not privy to the knowledge could really know or predict what was inside.

When she trusted a human, she did so completely, but even when she did trust a human, any kind of big energy made her very nervous. She would freak out and tremble in the corner if I got into even a minor disagreement with an S.O., then would come skulking back to me when things had settled down as if it had been her fault.

Dazé had never had that reaction, by the way. She’d just give us a look as if to say, “Stupid humans. Work it out. I’m taking a nap.”

Of course, Shadow would also freak out if the vacuum cleaner came out, or somebody whipped the sheet in order to drape it onto the bed, and so on. Inside that trembling, delicate façade, she really was made of the same stuff as Dazé in terms of love to give. She just never had the confidence to know it.

Then again, I think that Dazé may have come from the unwanted litter of a family dog in the first place, so she was a middle class dog. Shadow was found wandering the streets of South Central L.A. in the company of a male Siberian husky, so who knows where she had escaped from. It could have been a family. It could have been a junkyard. It could have been a dog-fighting ring. She was never able to tell me.

Sheeba’s funerary gear is completely different than the other two, but she was completely different as well.

The first big difference, of course, is that her ashes are in a clear bag. They’re also a lot finer than either of the other two — yes, I’ve looked. This is fitting, because Sheeba never pretended to be what she was not. What you saw was what you got, take it or leave it.

But that transparent bag came in a hard wooden exterior with a lock and key. She was tough and aloof on the outside, hard to get inside, and it took her a long time to trust anyone who wasn’t me. Oh, she would tolerate everyone and be friendly, but actual petting privileges were limited to the very few.

The elegance of the box indicates that she was never a kids’ toy. Sheeba, in fact, hated and feared children. I never held that against her because I’m not so fond of them myself.

Finally, the plaque on top with her name on it echoes a game I used to play with her when I got her to give me a high-five (four?). I would hold her paw up and say, “I am Sheeba. Yay!”

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She seemed to enjoy it.

I named her for a queen because she always presented herself as one, and the fact that her final remains came with a much more elaborate presentation is only fitting. The folks at the crematory knew.

So those containers sitting on my altar of dog are absolutely mismatched on the surface — but they absolutely match the heart and soul of each of the dogs within them.

I — and they — wouldn’t have it any other way. And Sheeba finally coming home for the last time on the anniversary of the day that Shadow came home for the first gives a really nice full-circle closure, although that doesn’t mean that the grieving is over.

If anything, this is the start of round two. I still imagine that I see or hear Sheeba here, and I think about Shadow more than I have in a while. I absolutely know that the perfect way to complete the current memorial to my lost dogs is to rescue my next dog, and give her or him a long, good life in honor of the others.

That’s how I wound up with Shadow after I lost Dazé and thought there could never be another. It’s just that I’ve never lost a dog before in such extraordinary times.

Then again, having been through over two weeks without a dog, I realize that, perhaps, one is the only way to survive such extraordinary times.

Image sources © 2020 Jon Bastian. All rights reserved.

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.