Dogs of Christmas

Me and Dally on a hike.

No, I didn’t get a dog for Christmas. But I did get to spend a lot of time with dogs, namely Aoive, Dublin, and Dally, whom I’ve mentioned before.

Aoive, my in-law’s English springer spaniel, has suddenly mellowed out in her old age. I say “suddenly,” I guess, because I haven’t seen her in a long time and her calmness surprised me. She is now 8 and her muzzle is graying and her eyes are drooping. It makes her look sad and stately–but the girl still knows how to have a good time. We took a long walk together over the holiday and even ended up running toward the end. She was eager and happy and, as always, very snuggly in the living room.

Later in the week, we traveled to my family’s town and spent most of our week with the borrowed dogs Dublin and Dally. Even though my father is as dog crazy as I am, my parents don’t have a dog of their own (due to my mother’s influence and protectiveness of her heart of pine floors). My father’s surrogate dog is Dublin, who adores him. My sister Grace was dog-sitting Dally, the neighbor’s gorgeous (and regrettably plump) 10-month-old Golden retriever, who is an absolute doll.

More photos below!

 

The blondes! Alex, my sister's boyfriend, and Dally share the love.
Dally and me, ready to go.
This is what heaven looks like to me: Family + field + dogs. (Dublin and Dally featured here.)

We also got to see the 3-year-old Marley, my cousin’s handsome and well-mannered chocolate lab. (Marley is the puppy featured with me on my “About” page.) It made me really happy to see such a trim and healthy lab; so often, labs are unmannerly blimps. But Matt, my cousin, is a very conscientious owner and has trained Marley very well. He’s a delightful boy.

Marley, my cousin's handsome and well-mannered lab.

OK, that’s all for now! Back to catching up on life…

Lessons learned from Dublin and Aoive

We had a peaceful and very pleasant Thanksgiving with our families this year. Along with all of the food and family time, I also got to spend some quality time with Dublin, my family’s surrogate dog, and Aoive, my husband’s family’s dog.

Dublin is our neighbor’s chocolate lab mix, whom my father has practically adopted as his own. Dublin’s family was out of town for the weekend, so we were watching her. She spent most of her time at our house throughout the weekend, and so I got plenty of time with her.

Family + Dublin
My family + Dublin.

I woke up early on Thanksgiving morning and took her for an hour-long walk/run through the local university campus. We chased squirrels and tromped through the woods and had such a peaceful, happy hour together. For all of her muscular energy, Dublin is very good at moderating her strength to the person who is walking her. I’ve seen her walk slowly and calmly next to her young charges, ages 6 and 10, without pulling at all. With me, she walks a little more briskly, but it’s never uncomfortable. I think this quite a skill for a young dog to have.

Dubs and me, post-run
Dublin and me, post-run. I'm looking a little rough, but she looks lovely.

On Friday morning, my mom and I took her on another long walk through town and she was a great companion on the walk. (She did exhibit some gastrointestinal distress, however, which was clearly the result of all of us being too indulgent with her on Thanksgiving.) She politely greeted a shimmering pair of West Highland white terriers on our way back. Their human was apparently impressed with how calmly his dogs were when they met Dublin. That’s generally Dublin’s effect on humans and dogs, I think: She just chills them out.

Later on Friday, we went to visit my wonderful in-laws and there had a reunion with the beautiful Aoive. I hadn’t seen Aoive in quite a while, and I was startled by how much gray she had accumulated along her muzzle and face. She is about 8.5 years old now, but you’d never guess it. Her coat is still the softest and most velvety coat I’ve ever felt and her energy is seemingly boundless.

That to say, she was on her best behavior for all of us over the weekend. When she’s in the house and can’t be next to Windy, my mother-in-law, she stays tethered to an armchair. If Windy is out of sight, Aoive instantly gets anxious. I’ve never seen a dog more attached to one person than Aoive is to Windy. But this extreme attachment seemed quite moderated this weekend.

Aoive's true love
Aoive with Windy, my mother-in-law, her favorite human on Earth.

On Saturday morning, all of us took her on a 2.5-mile walk around the local reservoir. It was a gorgeous, warm, and sunny day, and I think we all had a marvelous time. Aoive even got to wade along the creeks and banks. She was taunted by a flotilla of Canada geese and agitated by their serene movements just a few feet from her snout. But the prospect of having to actually swim in the reservoir was enough to keep her just frantically pacing back and forth along the bank.

Old Aoive
Sweet Aoive waits patiently to be let back in.

Big lessons learned: I’m thankful to have dogs in my life. Even though I don’t have one of my own yet, I’m thankful for the ones that I get to encounter when we visit family. They bring a lot of light and joy into all of our lives.

Review: The Hidden Life of Dogs

The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I recognized Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s name from the many book blurbs she wrote for the other dog books I was reading. I’d heard The Hidden Life of Dogs mentioned as a “much-loved” text, one woman’s insight into the “mysterious” lives of canines. It was short and so I thought, what the heck, I’ll read it.

The book is written in a memoir-like style and covers Thomas’s years of life with a large pack of Siberian huskies and one dingo (where this dingo came from, I don’t know, since Thomas lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and made no mention of ever visiting the Australian bush). Thomas spent time on Baffin Island observing wolves and her admiration for wolves comes through in her interactions with her dogs. Throughout the book, she constantly uses “wolf language” to describe how her dogs interact: They’re operating in a pack, there’s a hierarchy, there’s general suspicion toward humans, etc. Even her attraction to the husky breed indicates this desire of hers to keep wolves as pets.

Early on, we are introduced to the stud-bolt husky Misha. Misha is the celebrated wandering warrior, the Aragorn, if you will, of this story. Misha comes to live with Thomas and quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t want to stay in her fence. He nimbly scales the 6-foot wall and disappears. He escapes and wanders for hours and is often gone for days. Thomas says she would get calls from people six miles away saying they’d found her husky.

Though she lived in busy, urban Cambridge, Thomas made no efforts to curtail Misha’s adventures and instead decided to follow him on his treks. What she discovered was that Misha had an unusually excellent internal GPS system. He could always find his way home. He never got lost. He navigated Cambridge traffic like a seasoned pro and was never hit by a car (which seems a miracle in itself). Her time tracking Misha led her to bring other huskies into her home and within a few years, she had a veritable pack on her hands.

The part about following Misha intrigued me, but after those journeys, Thomas’s narrative and observations failed to maintain my interest and my respect. Thomas doesn’t seem to think that her dogs required any training or obedience–she prefers that they live according to their natural instincts. This is a nice idea–if you’re the type of person who can put up with 10 unruly dogs in your house. Thankfully for her sanity, Thomas appears to have been this type of person.

But that’s not even what bothered me the most. What really irked me was Thomas’s lack of care and concern for her dogs’ sexual health. None of her 10 dogs get neutered or spayed, not even the two pugs who lived indoors. So, naturally, puppies happen. Thomas writes about at least four litters that her unsupervised female dogs endure.

The most upsetting story that Thomas includes is an afternoon spent walking the neighborhood with her little dingo, Viva. Viva is only a few months old at the time and had just entered her first heat. Thomas says she was walking slowly with Viva when, out of nowhere, an English springer spaniel comes bounding over the fence and attaches himself to Viva. Viva is scared, Thomas writes, cries through the whole experience and never indicated that she wanted this dog’s amorous attention. “I realized dogs could rape,” Thomas concludes after this little anecdote–as if she was free of blame from the entire incident. On the contrary, Thomas is the only one who should feel guilty here. First, she never spayed her dog. Second, she had the idiocy to take her dog, unleashed, on a walk around the neighborhood while the dog was in her first heat. Third, she just stood there and watched while her dog got raped. The springer, though aggressive, was just doing what dogs do. Thomas, who should have had some foresight as the rational animal in this situation, appears neglectful, irresponsible, and downright stupid.

Viva has her puppies when she is just a puppy herself, just over 8 months old, and suffers through labor, as Thomas depicts it. Viva does not seem to be an instinctively competent mother, something which Thomas pities her for. Another bitch in the house, Koki, gets impregnated by another one of Thomas’s huskies around this same time. Koki is more confident, Thomas asserts, and a higher-ranking female in the household. One day, Thomas comes home and finds the house eerily still. None of the dogs will greet her. She goes upstairs and she finds Koki in Viva’s litter, holding one of Viva’s pups in her mouth. All but one of Viva’s pups are dead. Koki, apparently, is responsible for the deaths of these puppies. This is a horrific incident–and again, one that could have been avoided if Thomas had been a responsible dog owner. Instead, she justifies Koki’s infanticide with Koki’s belief that these lower-ranking puppies had to die so that her own puppies could succeed. I don’t know how I’d characterize Koki’s motives in killing another dog’s puppies, but I feel like this is a stretch without any evidence.

In a related point, my other big issue with this book is Thomas’s gross anthropomorphism of her dogs. I suppose this can only be expected, since Thomas is herself a respected anthropologist. But the motives and emotions she assigns to her dogs are almost always human motives and emotions and impossible to prove. She rarely gives any supporting behavioral or physical evidence that this emotion is, conclusively, what the dog was thinking or planning; rather, she just “knows.” I find this highly suspect.

Toward the end of the book, Thomas and her family move to a spacious property in Virginia where she builds a large, fenced enclosure for her remaining pack to live outdoors. She begins to lose daily contact with her dogs and, unsurprisingly, they become increasingly wild and wolf-like.

Thomas’s conclusion is that dogs don’t want or even necessarily need people in their lives. I think this is a ridiculous notion. The only reason Thomas reached this conclusion is because she was letting her dogs live like wolves by the end of the book. Of course they weren’t acting like dogs; dogs, as we know them, are defined by their dependence upon and relationship with humans. Not so for wolves–or, apparently, for Thomas’s wolf-like pack of huskies. Wolves don’t need people just like Thomas’s dogs didn’t need people. These animals were not acting like dogs. They dug an enormous den and tunnel system for their private use, bred as they pleased, and generally ignored Thomas’s existence.

She turned her dogs back into wolves and then somehow claims to have mystic insight into the lives of dogs. Hardly. The only thing Thomas uncovered was that, if left to their own devices, a pack of 10 huskies will devolve into animals with wolf-like natures and behaviors. They will be barely recognizable as dogs, because, for all intensive purposes, they’re not really dogs anymore.

If it’s not already clear, I have little respect for Thomas as a dog owner and as an observer of canine behavior. I think she ran an interesting experiment with her dogs and drew some misapplied conclusions from that experiment. Were her dogs happy? Yes, I think so. But they weren’t really dogs. For Thomas to claim to have some hidden insight into the lives of dogs is woefully inaccurate. But to have insight into the lives of dogs turned back into wolves? Well, then maybe. If that’s what you’re interested in, then this is the book for you. If you’re actually interested in dogs, save your time.

Aoive

aoive
Aoive on the back deck. Isn't she pretty? Source: Me

When I first visited the home of my (then) future-in-laws, I was delighted to learn that they had a dog. Aoive (pronounced “ava” instead of its Gaelic spelling, “ee-fa”) bounded up to me when I walked in the door; I was very happy to meet this gorgeous, silky English springer spaniel. She’s now six or seven years old, but it’s hard to believe. I think if I had just met her I would have guessed that she had just turned three. This dog has a LOT of spunk.

193/365
A rare moment of friendship between Guion and Aoive. Source: Me

Sometimes too much spunk. Guion has a love-hate relationship with Aoive, which commonly borders on “hate” because of her neurotic tendencies. Deep down, she’s very sweet, but mostly, she’s pretty weird. She’s often anxious and rarely still. She is very “hands-y,” in which she must always have her paws on some part of your body. She may suffer from pica, to a small degree, because she likes to eat non-nutritive things like toilet paper and dish rags. Aoive is the only dog I’ve ever met who is entirely uninterested in other dogs; she avoids them completely. Like many springers, Aoive also suffers from seizures and takes a daily medication to prevent the attacks.

Guion’s mom, Windy, wonders if some of Aoive’s issues may stem from the fact that she was taken away from her mother too early. Mike and Windy adopted Aoive when she was a bit older, so they don’t know her complete puppy history, but I think this is a pretty good guess. Conscientious springer breeders may often keep puppies with their mothers longer than the standard recommendation of eight weeks for this reason. Puppies who are weaned or removed from their mothers too young tend to develop behavioral problems later.

Comparatively, though, I don’t think Aoive has any problems that can’t be actively managed. Mike and Windy have done a great job with her and clearly lavish a lot of love and affection on her. Even though her neediness can occasionally be annoying, she’s only expressing her natural breed tendencies. I read somewhere that springers were bred to be in constant motion 10 to 12 hours a day! I love spending time with Aoive and look forward to visiting her in Southern Pines again soon. We’ll take a nice, long walk next time we do.

waiting
Ready to spring for some birds. Source: Me