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.

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.

“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!”

96394358_10156792695781595_6432198629431181312_o

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.