OK, I am just going to say it: I CANNOT STAND THIS “NOW WE SELL THE RIGHT WAY TO SOCIALIZE” TREND.
Sell toys. Sell whelping boxes. Sell your book. Sell your lectures. Do NOT claim that for a mere $69.99, a mysterious door will open and you are going to make us a better breeder than every other breeder – but you won’t tell us why or how… at least not until we give you our paypal. But once you HAVE the paypal, we can be SchmancyBreeders (TM) and SchmancyTrainers (R) that use InterestBoxes (TM) because InterestBoxes (TM) are so much better than a cardboard box and some empty water bottles.
Ian Dunbar has been giving this stuff away for years. Go read Dog Star Daily. Free yourself from (TM)s and (R)s. Introduce your puppies to at least fifty friendly strangers before they leave your house, and tell your buyers that they must meet fifty more before they’re twelve weeks old. STOP raising them in tiny bare x-pens. Make their world rich and interesting and include at least one new surface, challenge, smell, temperature, or other sense per day. Let them get away from their own feces, for pete’s sake. And get them the heck out of your house when they are puppies. Stop keeping half or the whole litter.
You do those things, and you are doing GREAT. If you want to pay a bunch of money to be in a club of people who discuss those things in greater depth, that is AWESOME. Go for it. But don’t think that a paywall makes you a better breeder, or $200 makes your puppies better puppies, than someone with an empty box, some water bottles, and a lap.
Hello, everyone! I’m Meriwether, age fourteen. As a personality profile, I’m terrified of the dark, adore dogs and wolves, conduct often failed cooking experiments, and–to introduce the content of this post–I love writing. LOVE. Writing, along with my art, is a vital outlet for me, and when I have writers’ block (as is too often the case) I feel like I can’t do anything. ANYTHING I TELL YOU.
Today my mom, who is awesome, has given me permission to publish for you all a version of my latest novella, complete with art that I completed to accompany it, while she works on formatting updates on the puppies and we all stare at their faces for hours on end waiting for their eyes to open.
And so, without further ado…
Once a kitten was born, a tiny runt of a kitten, the size of a red maple leaf. Her mother hated her and hid her away for a day or so, not even feeding her. After a little while she tossed the runt into a stream.
An old dog whose pups had died found the kitten in a pool at the end of a stream, frozen through and scrawny but alive. The dog nursed her for some time, but after a while the old creature had no milk left and was very tired, and one day when the kitten woke she found her caretaker asleep and couldn’t wake her.
So the kitten set off on her own, looking for something, something she had lost when her mother had thrown her in the stream and lost again when the old dog had died.
She was a very special kitten. She had a plumy white tail, soft ears that flapped a bit in the wind, and white spots on her orange coat. No one in the wide wood had ever seen a kitten like that and they thought she must be an odd creature, so they left her alone.
The kitten decided her name was Plum, but she didn’t tell anyone that, because she couldn’t speak for a long time. She was also so young that she couldn’t feed herself, but the chipmunks in the wood, seeing that she was kind and harmless, brought her almonds and showed her how to crush them and make milk to drink. She drank acorn-cups full of the milk, which gave her the strength to talk and walk about the world, all the while asking the good chipmunks questions. These were odd questions for a kitten to ask, but the chipmunks loved her and knew that she wasn’t familiar with the world as they were. So each day as she walked on further and further toward the end of the forest, a chipmunk or two would scurry along with her, sometimes riding on her back and sometimes walking beside her.
“What is death?” she asked.
The chipmunk she was with paused and looked at her curiously.
“Oh,” said Plum shyly, “I think it happened to a dog I knew, except I thought she was sleeping, but she didn’t wake.” Death made Plum sad and she didn’t understand it. The world must be very cruel, to put its inhabitants to sleep and not let them wake up.
The chipmunk smoothed the fur away from Plum’s eyes fondly. “A lot of little chipmunks ask that,” he said. “Well, death is usually danger. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of animals are afraid of it, but it’s not an evil thing, unless the animal who dies is a bad animal.”
The nest day another chipmunk was sent from the wood. Plum asked as they went along, “What is hurt?”
The chipmunk shook its head as if a fly was bothering it. “Hurt is evil.”
“But I thought death was hurt,” said Plum in surprise, “and death isn’t evil.”
“Death isn’t hurt,” said the chipmunk. “Death is rest when you’re old. Hurt is very different. Hurt is bad people and claws and teeth and fear and blood. Sometimes it’s tears.” Plum felt the chipmunk’s cool, gentle paws cup her face. “You must promise you won’t hurt things. A lot of cats don’t promise that.”
Plum was very afraid, so she promised.
The next day when she passed a big maple tree, a young chipmunk scuttled down and joined her, humming. “What is cat?” asked Plum.
“You are cat!” said the chipmunk.
“I am cat?” said Plum. She was very quiet and then began to cry. “Cats hurt. I am hurt?”
“No!” The chipmunk hugged her fiercely. “Don’t be hurt. You’re not hurt. If you keep walking on your journey like you’re supposed to, I will tell you about cats.”
Plum knew that many chipmunks were wise and clever, and even though they were fearful they rarely cried. So she was brave and walked on like she knew she was meant to, and let the chipmunk talk.
“Cats hunt,” the chipmunk began. “That means they eat little animals. That’s not bad. Lots of animals do that.
“Also, cats are very beautiful. They have fantastic coats of all different colors and big, smart eyes. They never smile, but they make a beautiful noise called purring.”
“Chipmunks are afraid of cats because sometimes cats eat chipmunks,” said the chipmunk. “But you’re different, because you’re small and sweet and you can’t kill anything yet.”
“But cats are hurt,” said Plum.
“Sometimes they hurt things,” admitted the chipmunk, “but that’s because they don’t know how to be gentle like you.”
“One of my friends made me promise never to hurt things,” said Plum worriedly.
“That’s a silly promise,” said the chipmunk bluntly. “Everyone hurts something, sometime, in ways we don’t even know or understand. It doesn’t mean we’re evil. You make me a promise, all right?”
“Are promises hurt?”
“Not if you’re careful. You promise me that you grow up to be a big, brave cat, and never stop your journey for the sake of crying. You can be good and be a cat at the same time.”
Plum tried to understand. She nodded but didn’t reply.
When the little kitten left the wood, she left the chipmunks. There was a huge river for her to cross to continue her journey over the world, but she found rocks to jump on. When there were no more rocks, she remembered that she was a big brave cat who made promises and didn’t hurt things and wasn’t afraid of death, and how could water be bad? So she jumped in and swam. She climbed out shivering but triumphant and went on.
Soon she was hungry, but she didn’t know what or how to eat. She traveled on, though, until she found a dense green forest full of vines and strange sounds. It was hot and damp and odd. The kitten felt very alone and miserable, and wished for company. She found a big leaf and curled up under it.
When she woke up the next morning, a face was staring at her. “Cat!” said the face. “Little cat!”
Plum screamed and ran backwards until she fell on her back.
“Scared?” said the face. “Funny! Scared of me?”
“Who are you?” asked Plum.
“I’m mongoose,” said the creature, scurrying toward her with a big smile.
“And you are cat. Never seen cat. Can you make cat noises?”
Plum tried purring. The mongoose looked delighted.
“Heard of cat,” he said. “You’re in stories. But you’re very small. You’re smaller than me. Funny!”
“Can you help me get to where I’m going?” asked Plum, standing up and brushing herself off.
“Where are you going?” asked the mongoose.
“Over the wide world to find something, I think,” said Plum. “And I need food, but I don’t have any almonds. Can you tell me where I am?”
“Rainforest!” said the mongoose proudly, lifting his head and laughing. “Beautiful small rainforest.” His smile faded and he regarded her seriously. “But you’re far from where you want. I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take you to Sandy. She’ll take you to a boat, and then you can go over the world! But tonight you stay with me and Mami.”
He took her to an earthy den that she barely fit in, but it was dry and good. The mongoose’s mother appeared from a tunnel and offered her some food. It was disgusting and seemed to have legs, which made Plum think of insects; but Plum knew that she was a big brave cat who made promises and didn’t hurt things and wasn’t afraid of death and was a good swimmer, and how could bugs be bad? So she ate them very quickly and slept.
The next morning the mongoose passed her on to Sandy, another mongoose, who grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and dragged her over a beach and up a long ramp. The next thing Plum knew, she was in a little dark space between boxes, and a number of feet were running about.
Sandy crouched next to her. “Stay here and stay safe until you get across the sea,” she whispered. “There’s good crumbs and things to find down here. You just have to explore.”
“I’m good at exploring,” said Plum.
Sandy liked Plum, and kissed the top of her head for luck before pattering out. “Look out for the big feet, and don’t let the humans touch you,” she called over her shoulder.
Soon Plum felt as though she were moving. She heard water splashing quietly against the walls of the hold and suddenly felt very sick. She ducked into a little ball until she felt better. When she raised her head it was utterly dark, and something behind her was growling.
She whirled around, rocking on unsteady legs. In a crate in a corner, staring between thick bars, was a huge dog.
“Cat!” it snarled, like the mongoose had. But the dog’s voice was angry, and Plum could feel its hot breath.
“Who are you?” mewed Plum.
“I am Fangs,” growled the dog. “Why are you here? You don’t belong here!”
Plum struggled to talk through her fear. “I-I am going over the wide world to look for something,” she said. “It’s what I was meant for.”
The dog gave a bellowing bark of laughter. “Where do those words come from?”
“The chipmunks and the mongoose.”
Another great bellow from Fangs. “Silly creature.” He stretched out in his crate and rested.
Slowly, Plum came closer. Fangs glared at her. “Why aren’t you afraid?” he growled.
“Because I am…a cat,” said Plum shakily.
“Cats are cowards,” said Fangs.
“Not me. I’m different. I’m…” Plum thought of the chipmunks. “I’m small and gentle.”
Fangs laughed. “Coward!”
“And I’m big and brave,” said Plum, lashing her plumy tail. “And I’m beautiful and I can swim and crush almonds. And I can eat bugs and I’m good at exploring. And I can make promises and I don’t hurt things and I’m not afraid of death. I’m different.”
Fangs looked at her in surprise. His eyes glimmered between the bars. “What are you called, cat?” he asked.
“Plum,” said Plum. “But it’s a very little name.”
“A little name for a little runt.” A hot sigh blew between the crate’s bars. “You are very free for a kitten. I have spent my life fighting in rings and sleeping in cages.”
“Oh,” said Plum. She felt her way slowly over to the crate, bumping into boxes and bags in the dim light, and sat down near it. “I will tell you about the wide world. I don’t know all of it yet, but I know a lot. I had help.”
While Fangs listened, half-asleep, Plum told him a little part of her story, about an icy stream and an old dog whose pups had died and who fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up.
“More,” Fangs growled.
“All right,” said Plum. “The chipmunks.”
She told the story of walking, walking and walking, through a wood full of eyes that stared at her and feet that backed away, and chipmunks who found her and loved her and fed her almonds and taught her many things. She told about death, and about hurt. When she was done she was crying, but then she stopped.
“Why did you stop?” asked Fangs.
“Because you should never stop your journey for the sake of crying,” she said.
“You don’t understand much, runt,” said Fangs. “Death is a sad thing, not for kittens to know about.”
“I’ll try to understand, anyway,” said Plum. “Do you want to hear more? I have a bit about a rainforest, but most of it’s in a den with a mongoose.”
Fangs grunted, so Plum told the story of being alone with no one else and feeling very different and sleeping under a leaf. Then she introduced the mongoose who was so kind and cheerful, and his mother who had fed her bugs, and Sandy who had dragged her up a ramp and then kissed the top of her head.
“Then there was a dog,” she went on, “who was angry. The end.”
Hours passed and the dark space was very quiet. Plum curled up on a soft bag and slept.
Suddenly she realized that it was lighter. Fangs growled from his crate, “Hide, cat!”
Plum jumped off the bag and wriggled behind it. Great footsteps rang on the floor. A human bent in front of Fangs’ crate and shoved in a plate of food. Then it was gone.
Plum’s belly rumbled. She padded out toward the smell of food, but Fangs growled. “Mine!” he said.
Plum turned away and began to sniff around. A mouse scuttled into a hole with an unintelligible shriek. A rat glared at her and snarled something she understood even less than the mouse. She found little to eat besides a withered old sausage someone had left there, a few dried peas, and a crumb. It was enough to fill her belly for now, but no matter how hard she searched the corners of the hold there was nothing else to eat.
“Cat,” said Fangs from his crate, “is there more of the story?”
Plum wobbled over and sat down near him again. She had told most of the story, so she tried to describe herself. An odd little kitten the size of a red maple leaf. Who asked questions about death and hurt. Who was on a journey over the wide world for no particular reason except that it was her special journey.
“It’s what I was meant for,” she said.
“It’s what God made you to do,” Fangs corrected her. He beckoned her closer and pressed his neck against the front of the crate, showing her a crude silvery cross etched on his collar.
“What’s that?” asked Plum.
“A good thing,” said Fangs. “Keep it in your heart.”
Another day passed—Plum knew it by the changing light in the hold—and the human came to feed Fangs again. Plum stared at his dish, wondering how her small stomach could feel so big and empty.
After a moment she felt Fangs’ eyes on her. He took a morsel of food in his mouth and swallowed it. There was a pause, and he swallowed more. Then he picked up a piece from the dish and, sticking his nose through the bars of the crate, dropped it on the floor. Plum hurried to it and licked it. It was a good-sized piece. She ate it all and was full.
“How long has your journey been?” asked Fangs.
“My whole life,” she responded immediately. Her traveling in the woods seemed like forever, the rainforest was one day and one night, and the boat trip so far was two days.
“How long has your journey been?” she asked Fangs.
“My journey?” he echoed. He sat back on his haunches as if thinking hard. “My journey. Three long years.” He bent his head and finished his food.
“What is a year?” asked Plum.
“A year is something beautiful,” said Fangs slowly. “Something to keep track of. If you count out almost four hundred sunsets, that’s a year.”
“That must be a lifetime!” exclaimed Plum.
“No, little one. Four hundred sunsets is a small gift compared to some.”
The dog and kitten shared two more days in the hold, sharing food and sleeping. Plum wondered when she would be able to count sunsets. Down here there was no sun.
On their sixth day Fangs asked, “What is it you’re looking for, cat?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Plum. “A home, maybe. A mother. Someone to stay close to me. Maybe…maybe the end of my journey will be when I die.”
“Don’t say that! I’ve killed enough not to hope for it, foolish cat.”
“But death isn’t evil,” said Plum, “and I’m not afraid of it.”
“I’m sure you aren’t,” said Fangs gruffly. “You said that you make promises, cat.”
“Yes,” said Plum, “but you have to be careful about promises.”
“You make a promise to me, little one, that you don’t search for your death. Try to find something rather than nothing.”
Plum looked at him through the crate bars. “All right, I promise,” she said, and purred.
After a week of travel Plum felt the movement begin to lessen. Then a door opened, light flooded the hold and humans hurried in. Plum peeked out from behind a box as Fangs was led out. “Good-bye,” she called in a tiny voice. “Good luck.”
Before the door closed she crept out.
The new world that she would travel over loomed before her as she padded down the ramp. Tall buildings where humans lived rose in long lines, with cats and dogs and children milling about them. It was surprisingly cold after the mongoose’s rainforest. A little place that smelled of grass and trees beckoned to Plum, and she went toward it.
A few browning trees and an elegant little fence separated this park from the rest of the wide world. Plum looked around with interest. A squirrel pattered out to the end of a branch and watched her with clever dark eyes before scrambling down.
“Who are you?” asked Plum.
“A stranger,” said the squirrel simply. “You, too, I see.” She raised a paw, very like a chipmunk’s paw, and touched Plum’s face.
“You’re very little,” said the squirrel.
“I’m Plum,” said Plum. “I have a journey to go on, but I’m not sure where to go from here.”
“Where do you need to go?” asked the squirrel.
“Over the world.”
“That’s a grand thing, little cat. Stand still a minute.” Plum stood still and felt the small paws pattering over her body, fluffing her tail, smoothing creased hairs, straightening her ears, brushing mud off her white paws. “You must look presentable for your journey, yes?”
“Thank you,” said Plum.
“I’m not much help to you now, though,” said the squirrel. “Go to the third house in the square, a red brick one with a young dog in the yard. There’s a cat on the fence.” She pushed Plum gently away.
Plum went to the house. A dog slept in the yard and a beautiful white cat looked down haughtily from the fence.
“Kitten,” she said, “you don’t belong here. Run off and play in some dirty alley. That’s what you’re meant for.”
“No,” said Plum. “I have to go over the world. That’s what I’m meant for. It’s what God made me for.”
“Tsk, child,” said the cat.
Plum stared. “I’m Plum.”
“Hardly,” said the cat in a bored voice. “Plums are round. A more appropriate name would be Stick, but that’s hardly a creditable discussion. I am Errand, and you clearly need help.”
“Yes,” said Plum. She was quiet for a moment, and then asked, “How did you get up there?”
“I jumped,” said Errand coolly.
Plum backed up, leapt at the fence, and clawed her way to the top.
“Needs work, child,” said Errand, “and you need work. If you really endeavor to trek over the globe, this isn’t the place to do it. Go to the mountains. Learn to climb. Meet someone.”
“Can’t you help me more than that?” asked Plum as she cat stretched luxuriously.
“Why should I care, child? I think it’s a madcap pursuit. The train out of here is around the corner. I’d wish you luck if I thought you credited it.”
Plum turned away, clambered back down the fence, and padded off around the corner to the train station. She was afraid and once again felt alone. Errand hadn’t helped much; Plum had hardly understood those big words the white cat used. But she was on her way, and she was a big brave cat who made promises and didn’t hurt things and wasn’t afraid of death and was a good swimmer and had befriended a dog, so why should the mountains scare her?
A tiny boxcar rattled at the end of the train. Plum climbed on through an open door and huddled in a corner until the train began to move.
The train with the kitten on it moved for hours, mostly up. It was freezing and snow whistled into the boxcar. Plum curled herself tightly and puffed out her coat. Awful memories of an icy current pulling her were invading her mind. She burrowed into the warmth of her own coat and tried to sleep.
When the train finally stopped, Plum jolted awake and jumped up, waiting for the tide of human feet in the boxcar to stop, but she had no opportunity to escape. Straw was thrown on the floor of the boxcar, along with bales of hay and a trough, and then up the ramp into the car came a number of cattle. Plum stared at them from her corner. They looked lovely, with soft eyes and gently tilting ears, but they were enormous. Bigger than Fangs. Bigger than the humans.
When they had all been loaded in, Plum darted for the door, a draft of cold air hitting her in the face—but then the door slid shut abruptly. Plum tumbled backwards, over and over herself as the train began to rumble uphill again. A cow lowed softly and took up a wisp of hay, but the livestock seemed unbothered.
Plum fell flat in the same corner she had sat in before. The train was moving swiftly uphill; there was no chance of getting out now. Plum stared up hopelessly at the silhouettes of the cows, lit dimly by a lantern on the wall. The crowded boxcar was warm and the straw was soft, but it wasn’t what Plum wanted. It wasn’t what she was made for. She was utterly friendless.
A snowflake drifted in through a gap between the boards and landed on Plum’s nose. She sniffled, and one by one tears began slowly working their way down her face. She buried herself in the straw and sobbed in defeat.
“Hello,” said a gentle, rumbling voice with a touch of an accent. “I know that sound. There’s a little one in here somewhere. Have we got a calf with us, or did a barn cat come along with a kitten?”
There was a soft murmur from around the boxcar. Then Plum felt the straw being moved away from her head.
“Here we are,” said someone. “What is it, little child? Now, you’re all right.” The voice was sweet and slow. Plum looked up blearily at a red cow, which smiled at her as it chewed.
“What’s this, kitten?” asked the cow in a soothing tone, rubbing her broad nose against Plum’s face. “You’re a brave barn cat, aren’t you? You shouldn’t cry so.”
“What’s a barn cat?” sniffled Plum.
“Well, a barn cat is a good creature who catches mice,” said the cow with a chuckle, “but I see now you’re not one. What are you doing here, kitten?”
“I’m journeying over the world,” said Plum feebly, sinking back into the straw, “but I don’t know why I should anymore.”
“Why, dear little one?”
“Because I’m alone and my friends are so far away, and I have no mother.”
The cow shuffled the straw around so that Plum couldn’t hide in it. “We can’t have this,” said the cow gently. “How far have you come?”
“Well,” said Plum, “I lived in a wood with an old dog, but that was a very long time ago, and she died. So I walked along for a long time and the chipmunks looked after me and they’re very wise and told me I was on a journey. And I was. A grand journey. So after ever so many days or weeks I crossed a river and got to the rainforest with this mongoose, and he had a friend named Sandy who brought me to a boat and kissed me on the top of my head, here.” Plum touched her paw to the spot between her ears. “And Fangs, a dog, was in the boat and he listened to my stories and told me to promise him…and then a squirrel showed me where a cat was, a white cat called Errand who said I belonged in an alley, and she told me to run off to the train and now I can’t get off and I’m alone.”
“Such a long trip for a little kitten,” murmured the cow. “Here, little one, climb up onto my horns.”
Plum looked up, put her forepaws uncertainly on the cow’s broad head, and climbed softly up with a little slipping and sliding to the horns, and from there to the cow’s warm, wide back.
“The chipmunks told me never to stop my journey for the sake of crying,” said Plum, “but I don’t know what to do now, and they’re so far away, and I don’t even know what to look for.”
“Never fear, little one,” said the cow. “You’ll finish your journey and find a place. That’s what you’re looking for, I think.”
“A place?” sniffed Plum.
“Yes, a little home with someone who can understand you. That’s never an easy thing to find. For some people, it’s right here.” The cow flicked an ear at Plum’s chest where her heart beat. “For others it’s hidden, over the world. You sleep now, dear kitten, and stay warm. The train will be moving for a long time, and it’s best for us all to sleep now.”
So Plum settled on the cow’s warm withers and slept.
Three days passed in the boxcar, which was always warm from the cluster of bodies. The lantern flickered and grew dimmer but didn’t go out, and there were many bales of hay for the cows to eat. When Plum’s belly rumbled, the cow she rode on showed her how to get milk from her full udders.
“You have a calling, little one,” said the cow in her gentle voice, “something you know you should do. For you it’s a journey. For me, it’s to have calves and give milk. It’s a special thing.”
“Everyone says it’s different, though,” mewed Plum softly. “The chipmunks said it was what I was meant for. Fangs said it was what God made me for. And it’s my calling, too.”
“Just different ways of saying the same thing.” The cow looked up, lowing softly. “We’re going up a slope, kitten. The train will be slowing down.”
Plum glanced over at the sliding boxcar door. It rattled, open a crack. The sound of it jittering in its frame had become familiar in the three days Plum had been riding in the boxcar.
“Oh,” said Plum quietly. “I think it’s time for me to go now.”
The cow lowered her head, and Plum slipped down her neck. Plum made her way between the cows’ feet to the door and slipped her head outside through the little open space.
The hillside rushed past, white with snow, and a bitter wind nipped at Plum’s whiskers. She looked up the train and saw a fuzzy line where the top of the mountain was, seeming to change dauntingly as the snow blew over it.
Plum turned back to the warm boxcar. “I’m going to jump out at the top,” she said. “Thank you so much for helping me. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, little one,” said the cow. “Be safe.”
Plum looked out the door again. The train was grinding slower and slower as it crested the hill. The boxcar inched toward the top, and the engine, already on the other side of the hill, sped up.
And Plum jumped.
Plum had never seen or felt snow before. She had been born in springtime woods. Up here, in the high mountains where the snow rarely melted, it was freezing and wintry, and when Plum hit the snow it was as if she had been thrown into the stream all over again. Suddenly she was drowning in cold.
And it was pulling her! Like the stream’s current, it was dragging her downhill.
Plum plummeted down and down through the awful cold, the wind ripping at her coat, the snow burning her skin beneath the fur. She rolled to a stop at last on a ledge, in a thick layer of snow. She floundered up, gasping for air.
Plum was battered and bruised and the snow stung every sensitive part—her eyes, her nose. Her lips began to burn from the cold. She struggled out of the snowdrift, creeping through the thick whiteness with her legs fully submerged. She knew she had to find shelter.
At last she felt a deep hollow in the hill beneath her, covered with snow. She turned, running her tongue around her burning mouth, and began to dig. Her joints were frozen and painful, and it took her longer than it should have to dig through the snow and find the hollow. At last she got to it, an earthy den of sorts, with airholes poking up in various places. It was obviously abandoned, and not a comfortable place to stay, but Plum crawled in to wait out the storm. After a few minutes the air in the den grew thin; the airholes had been plugged up with snow. Plum held up a shaking paw and opened one up. She barely slept that whole dark night, for every few minutes she had to sit up and make another airhole.
At last she noticed a thread of pale light worming into her shelter. She dug up and out and gulped the empty air of the mountainside. There was still wind but no storm. Plum found the tracks of the train that she had been riding on only a few hours before—long gone now—and crossed them, into the snowy waste.
The mountains were totally unknown to Plum. She had only this direction in her head to guide her—keep going, over and on. So she did.
She came to know the creatures that roamed her new territory. She noticed the leopards first, noticed their eyes. It was as if they were nothing but eyes. She felt them staring at her from the bleak slopes, and when she turned to look she saw nothing, except a vanishing flash of silver or a trail of pawprints bigger than she was.
The hawk introduced himself by snatching her up and carrying her for miles as she wailed at the sight of the earth disappearing below her. She was saved when another hawk dove out of the air to snatch her, and the bird carrying her let go out of surprise. Plum landed with a flump in the snow far below, and couldn’t even stop to recover from her pain and shock; if she lay still too long, she would soon freeze.
To drink there was nothing except melted snow. When she was hungry, she dug miserably in the drifts, hoping to find some frozen dead animal or even a worm or bit of a shrub. After a week of trying to cross the mountains, trying to survive, she was lean and sickly. The white, white world darkened suddenly, and Plum collapsed.
She woke with a leopard’s jaws closing on her neck, and screamed. “Get away!” she cried, floundering in the snow.
“Stop that, now.” A massive paw encircled her. “Calm down. You’ll die of hysterics.”
Shivering, Plum looked up at the leopard. It wasn’t as big as she had thought. “Who are you?” she said through chattering teeth.
The leopard’s yellow eyes stared. They were curious eyes, not vicious.
“Sasha,” the leopard said.
“Plum.” The leopard nodded. “You don’t belong here in the cold. Why did you leave your house, your milk and cushion?”
“I d-d-didn’t. Never had th-them. I’m on a journey.”
“A journey? To where?”
“Ov-v-ver the world.” Plum looked up at the leopard and realized she couldn’t feel her paws. “Help me. Please.”
Sasha bent and picked her up by the scruff, gently. Her warm breath washed over Plum. The kitten gave a shuddering sigh.
“I used to have kittens,” said Sasha through her mouthful of Plum’s fur. “Like you. Very tiny. I would have to carry them over the snow.” The leopard bounded uphill. Plum’s teeth rattled in her head.
Sasha brought her to a little den, a burrow beneath a cliff with an overhang of frozen dirt and stones over it. It was lined with soft fur that smelled of leopard. Sasha placed Plum in a little nest, where she shivered helplessly and couldn’t get warm.
A silvery head rose at the back of the burrow. “What’s this?” said a measured male voice. Plum guessed it was Sasha’s mate.
“A runty kitten on a journey,” said Sasha.
Plum looked up at them both. “You’re like big cats,” she murmured faintly. “The chipmunks said cats were big and brave and beautiful but they never smiled.”
The male leopard’s whiskers twitched. “Where did you pick this one up, Sasha?” he asked.
“She ran away from home, I think,” said Sasha, sniffing Plum.
“I didn’t,” rasped Plum. “I don’t have a home. I think I’m looking for one. Maybe. I’m looking for something.”
The leopards looked at each other. “Could this be your home?” asked Sasha.
Plum shook her head. “It’s v-very nice, but no, I don’t think it’s my home.”
“No,” said Sasha sympathetically. “We couldn’t care for you anyway.”
Plum settled as much as she could in the nest, but she couldn’t get comfortable. She felt as though she were floating in a little bubble of cold and sickness. She felt Sasha prod her belly and sniff her all over. “Open your mouth,” said Sasha.
Plum did, and Sasha sniffed her tongue. “You’ve been eating all the wrong things, little cat,” she said, “and you’re very sick. I can get you warm right now, but you need others to look after you. Most importantly, you have to get out of these mountains. They’re too cold for you, Plum.”
Plum let Sasha lick her roughly, until the friction of the leopard’s big tongue warmed her a little. Sasha put a little cocoon of leopard fur around her and picked her up again.
“Hurry, and be safe,” said Sasha’s mate as Sasha went bounding onto the dark mountainside.
“Where are we going?” asked Plum.
“A day’s journey, usually,” Sasha answered through her teeth, “but it’s beginning to storm. I’ll take you to one of the trains, nearby on the level ground. When you get off the train in three days you have to get to a warm place, to someone who will care for you. Do you understand, little cat?”
They traveled two days in the storm. Plum had been helpless in a gale, but Sasha didn’t seem afraid of anything. Plum thought she could never forget those two days, struggling onward through the whiteness, but she could never fully remember them. She just remembered the snow and the cold and Sasha carrying her.
At sunrise on the third day Plum was drifting on a black sea, her eyes closed. When she opened them she was on the train, sharing a boxcar with a young sleeping horse. She looked up, blinking, and saw Sasha crouched over her, tucking a bed of warm, sweet-smelling straw around her. “You finish this journey, little cat,” said Sasha, and gave Plum a kiss on the head, between her ears, where Sandy had kissed her. Then Sasha was gone, and Plum, in a nest of leopard hair and straw, was on her way in the train again.
A fever in Plum’s head made her sleep fitfully, on-and-off, for the three-day train ride. The snow was always blowing in and landing on the horse, but the animal just shivered its skin and didn’t give it another thought. It was different for Plum. The heat of her fever and the lack of food and coldness of her body, despite the nest Sasha had made, made her feel sicker. She didn’t get up at all.
The horse seemed to notice her at last and asked her what she was doing in the boxcar.
“Going over the world,” she said weakly.
“Oh,” said the horse. “Like a race. Like a grand gallop.”
“Something like that, I suppose,” said Plum, “but I don’t feel much like galloping.”
“Why don’t you get up and stretch your legs?” asked the horse.
“Because I’m sick and I’m saving my strength for when the train stops.” Plum closed her eyes and whimpered in her sleep.
The train began to slow down, and Plum opened her eyes as the boxcar door slid open. She stumbled out through the rush of human legs. A house. She had to find a house.
A stream flowed over an icy bed next to the path where Plum walked. She stopped to get a drink, hoping the cold water would take away some of the heat of the fever, and suddenly a grayish head poked up from the stream.
“Is it safe?” asked the head, looking around cautiously.
“Who are you?” asked Plum.
“I’m an otter.”
“Oh…” Plum swayed. “An otter?”
“Yes! A European otter.”
Plum tried to make her eyes focus. “Is there a warm place nearby?”
The otter, seeing that she needed help, put out a cool webbed paw and steadied her so she could look at him. “Here—go up the path and into the little hut. There’s a furnace and a basket full of old blankets. I’ve heard it’s a bit crowded, mice and cats and the like, but if you crawl under the very bottom blanket you’ll be fine.”
Plum looked dizzily up the gravel path. She couldn’t see anything more than ten feet away. “I might need help,” she said.
“Not from me, kitten! Too many humans about for me. I can’t stay long.”
Plum looked at him as he slid back into the water. “Please,” she said.
But he was gone.
Everything was dim and hazy as Plum staggered over to the hut. She could barely manage the steps, and kept reminding herself that after all she was a big brave cat who made promises and didn’t hurt things and wasn’t afraid of death and was a good swimmer and had befriended a dog and crossed snowy mountains. She needed those thoughts.
The door was ajar, and a rat peeking out from behind it made a nasty sound that sounded like a curse at Plum before scuttling away. To Plum’s fevered eyes the entire inside of the hut seemed to glow gold from the furnace. In a wide, empty bookshelf was a wiry little she-cat with two newborn kittens curled near her; in a hole in a chair cushion a mouse’s ear poked out; on a stool in front of the furnace was an old woman, warming her hands, with a lop-eared dog at her feet. Plum, feeling tiny in this creature-filled hut, stumbled in and felt her way over to a basket next to the furnace. A heap of woolen blankets was jumbled inside. Plum crept in, swaddling and burying herself in them, and slept. There was nothing else to do. She could get warm, but she had no way of getting food. For now, the only thing for her was to sleep.
She slept a long hard sleep for a day and a night and awoke to a paw prodding her. It was the mother cat whose kittens were on the bookcase.
“Here,” whispered the cat, nudging a morsel of food toward Plum.
“Thank you,” said Plum. The cat returned to the bookcase as Plum ate.
The mother cat was Plum’s main source of food while she recovered, with an attitude drastically different from Errand’s. Like all cats, the mother cat never smiled, but she was quiet and kind and reminded Plum of the chipmunks. Plum watched her and the kittens with interest. What a wonderful world, where a cat could be kind. What a cruel world, where an otter wasn’t.
After a week Plum was well enough to leave the hut. As she padded off in the early morning toward her journey, away and away and away, thinking great thoughts, she turned back once. The mother cat was looking at her from the bookcase. Plum nodded a silent thank-you, and suddenly felt warm and good even though it was a wintry day. She was alone, but with all these kind things in her heart, she was ready.
Off went Plum, over the world.
A sailing boat moored at a dock took her to a place called Scotland. For a month she rode on the shoulder of a sailor. He had a journey, too, and seemed to understand her well, and when she left she knew he understood.
A shaggy old barn dog pointed the way toward the sea, and Plum hitched a ride on a ship, all the way to England, where rain flattened her ears and dogs chased her and the streets were wide and noisy and wonderful.
So Plum traveled, for two years, into Russia and Asia and Italy. She learned more about hurt and death, and about other, better things, beautiful things. She learned about parades and carnivals and parks. She saw people and animals in love. She watched through a schoolroom window as children learned too. Her heart grew with the rest of her. The world was so great and big, and yet for her it still centered on a wood full of chipmunks, a boxcar full of cows, a dog in a crate, a mongoose in a rainforest. There was so much to learn! So many places to go! So many things to find!
Plum grew up strong and wiry and pretty with huge eyes, all the better to see the world. She determined to keep the promise she had made to Fangs. On the eve of her third year, she took one more boat ride.
The boat coasted near a great river that Plum knew. She wriggled from a porthole, splashed into the water and swam to shore. The wood stretched before her, a forest tingling with memories and love.
“I’m home,” said Plum with a shiver of delight. “This is home. My home.”
All that day, the ginger-and-white cat sat very still in the grass and let the sun dry her. She watched the forest and went without meals until nightfall. When the sun went down a small, sleek chipmunk waddled toward her.
“Cat!” it cried. Like the mongoose and Fangs had.
“Hello,” said Plum. “Do you know me?”
“Do I?” said the chipmunk slowly. “Why aren’t you chasing me?”
“I don’t eat chipmunks.”
“Ridiculous. I thought all cats ate chipmunks if they wanted to.”
“I don’t want to,” said Plum. She gazed up and around her, at the trees and the night sky, at the cruel, beautiful world. Her great eyes shone. “I’m different,” she whispered.
“Ah,” said the chipmunk. It sat back and looked at her with its wise little eyes. “You have a story. Tell me. But don’t come too close.”
Plum began, “Once there was an icy stream in a wood, and an old dog who rescued a tiny kitten from it. But the dog died, to teach the kitten about death. The kitten was hated by everyone and decided to go on a journey over the world, to see if everyone she met was so hateful. But the chipmunks in the forest loved her and taught her many things. They were very wise.
“The kitten sailed the ocean with a dog who knew nothing but fighting. She went to the mountains and nearly died, but a beautiful leopard named Sasha rescued her and sent her off on her journey, though the rest of it didn’t seem as important as those things—a river, an ocean, a mountain.
“The kitten had a place deep in her heart where she kept everything. In this heart-place she kept funny things—bugs, straw, milk, sunsets and leopard hair. She kept love in there, and memories, and promises, and a collar with a silver cross on it. She kept her name in there, in a large empty corner, to remind herself how small and unimportant and precious it was. And she kept her journey there, a journey she was meant for, a journey God had made her for, a journey she was called to. It was a journey she never understood and could never name. She always said she was looking for something, but she never said for sure what it was. What she did find, at last, was the world, which was awful and cold and warm and wonderful and full of strange things.
“And the kitten came back to the wood and called it her home, because there it was, the place she had loved and missed most, right in front of her.
A horrible camera-phone pic of Sammy on the way to church this morning.
Sammy and Godric have had a few weeks to settle in and get used to home, so now the daily work has begun. Every day they go somewhere with us – a restaurant, a building where they have to climb stairs, someone’s house, etc. Sammy is ready to start public interior training – like libraries and so on – and will do that next; Godric’s bladder is still a bit too small but he’s not far off. The story that I want to tell is not whether or not they’re doing well (they’re doing great!) but how this has made me think about the work that dogs do.
Before I had these little dogs – Ginny and now Godric and Sammy – I had the same thought about companion dogs that most “big dog” people do: They basically sit on laps. Not a heck of a lot of utility.
Now I realize that I was totally wrong – because companion dogs don’t sit on laps – they SIT ON LAPS. It’s like the difference between chasing sheep and herding them, honestly – at church, for example, Sammy and Godric greeted many people, they sat on Honour’s lap without asking to get off, and they were handed around to the gentle old ladies and the not-so-gentle youth leaders and the kids getting lemonade afterward. In every set of arms they were still and accepting; to every face they were friendly; they never barked or fought to get down and they quietly stood between Honour’s feet when they weren’t greeting people.
If you want to appreciate how difficult that is for a dog, imagine carrying around and handing a one-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer to five eighty-year-old women in a row. A Papillon and a GSP are the same animal. Same brain, same basic instinctive reactions. It’s just as much a specialized behavior for a dog to sit still on a stranger’s lap as she plays with your hair and sniffs your head (everybody sniffs Sammy’s head; I know that it’s actually because she’s super, super clean and soft all the time and they’re surprised how nice she feels and smells, but I have to laugh because it’s like she’s made out of cheesecake) as it is for a dog to point a bird.
And you can tell afterward, too. When we got back in the car after two hours of being social, the two of them CRASHED. They were so exhausted they licked at food for a minute and then fell asleep with their faces in the bowl. These are dogs who run and play all day, but being still and perfect is concentrated, deliberate work.
It’s honestly amazing to watch; they change just as much as a corgi changes when they turn on to sheep. It’s not that they don’t need training, because of course they do, but the basic brain structures are already there. When we were at an outdoor restaurant on Saturday, we were eating fries with a three-month-old Papillon puppy lounging on the picnic table next to plates of food. He’s a complete wild man at home, but out and about he watched everybody walk by, wagged at them, didn’t move toward them unless told to, and took food only when it was handed to him. Trust me, it’s not because I am a great trainer. It’s because for three hundred years his breed has been refined until that kind of thing is hard-wired.
It’s given me a whole new facet of dog-ness to appreciate, honestly, and be fascinated by. And it doesn’t hurt that they are so cute it’s ridiculous.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot today because of something a friend is going through, and thought it was worth exploring with the group of you.
I’ve been interested in dogs long enough, and been reading about them long enough, to have seen some broad swings in training. I’m not talking about positive/negative reinforcement, though that is certainly the case (and I honestly think it’s a mistake to see this as a progression from bad to good – it’s a lot more of a pendulum swing, and I would predict things will move back the other way in the next twenty or so years); what I mean is a change in the definition of the well-trained dog.
It has historically been the case that training was a preparation for the dog to work a job; you were teaching the dog the vocabulary it needed for its role in life. The basic stuff was all the same – whether herding or protecting or sending messages or a hundred other things, dogs need to not run off on their own, need to come when called, need to stay close to a handler, need to pick up and carry stuff when asked. So that’s what basic training was – heel and sit and down and stay and so on. A few people got very interested in doing those basic exercises super well, which is where competitive obedience comes from – competitive obedience is like compulsory figures in figure skating. You’re doing a few simple things with a very, very high degree of style and consistency.
But whether the commands were done at that very high level or on a more normal level, the goal was never to be that the dog just did THAT. It was supposed to lead to a life with a dog that was just a normal life where the dog did stuff. It’s sort of like teaching a toddler what the word cup and then cupboard means – you don’t do it so you can say “cup!” “cupboard!” when the kid is eighteen years old. You do it so you can say “Hey, go get me some coffee when you’re in the kitchen.” The basic commands for a dog were in order to facilitate a day where you go move a bunch of sheep, or walk down a dangerous street and collect rent, or deliver milk, or patrol a wall. “Stay” was “stay there and don’t move so I don’t get shot when I peer around this corner,” not an exercise to see how straight the legs were.
When dogs lost their jobs, over the course of the 20th century, for a long time the basic commands kept their place in training and obedience. You took a puppy to a class that taught sit and down and stay, and the further classes were refining those same basic commands. The focus of training became competitive obedience, which I honestly think is kind of a tragedy because so few of the students would ever go on to compete and we lost the idea that the commands were part of normal life and not a style exercise.
In maybe the 90s trainers began to realize that the usefulness of a beautiful retrieve and finish was pretty low in the real world, because nobody was using dogs to send messages to soldiers anymore (where the dog should quickly deliver the message and then get ready to run with the soldier to the commanding officer) or in fact to do anything that a retrieve and finish is good for. “Hand me something and then get ready to move” was no longer a problem that anyone was trying to solve.
What people WERE trying to solve were the issues that come when you have a whole bunch of frustrated dogs living with no exercise in close proximity to other dogs. Because, as you know, humans have ALSO lost a lot of their jobs. But we’re still the same inside – we still envision ourselves as hunters or fishers or farmers or explorers or messengers or warriors. And we buy dogs that satisfy those internal envisionings, not the crappy office job we actually have. We buy big retrievers and mastiffs and border collies and livestock guards and hunting dogs, and so do all our neighbors, and then the dogs are living far closer to each other than they’d ever choose to live and they’re not getting any exercise and they have no job or outlet and they start acting badly.
So trainers began to try to solve the problems of dogs biting other dogs, dogs pulling on leash, dogs who didn’t get along at the dog park, dogs who weren’t happy with strangers approaching them, dogs who were distracted by moving objects, and so on.
The expectation moved from “well-trained dogs are useful dogs” to “well-trained dogs are endlessly tolerant of absolutely anything and never discipline, punish, or predate on anything.”
With this new expectation came new words – it’s FASCINATING. When I do a book search, from 1800-1980 there’s ONE book that uses the phrase “dog aggression”–the Monks of New Skete book that came out in 1978. From 1980 to 2000 there are about a hundred books using that phrase or close to it. From 2000 to 2011 there are almost a THOUSAND. “Reactive” has exploded; before 2000 it was almost always used positively – a dog who has a quick response time. After 2000 it’s now in thousands of references to bad dogs, poorly trained dogs, unsocialized dogs.
There will be more new words – I told my friend today that I needed to go copyright “motion insecurity” before somebody decides that we have to rename the urge dogs have to chase moving objects!
I said earlier that I thought it was a tragedy that training didn’t move away from competitive obedience sooner – and I do mean that. But I think we may have done an even bigger disservice to dogs by saying that the new role of the good dog is basically a big body pillow.
So here are the big questions –
1) Is it in fact normal for dogs to endlessly tolerate everything?
2) Are we insisting that dogs be perfect when they’re not in fact perfect? Where is the place for the dog who’s just plain grouchy, and it’s not a training error but personality?
3) Are we doing justice to owners by implying that this new expectation of behavior is valid for all dogs? (To use a specific example, saying that we can “help” their terrier not chase cats, or “help” their chow not react to other dogs.)
4) Why exposure and not avoidance? That is, if you have a dog who lunges at other dogs, why is the answer to “helping” that dog (and yes, I do keep putting helping in quotes because that’s how I ALWAYS hear it used now – it’s not training, it’s “helping,” implying that the dog WANTS this help and is incomplete without this help) going out and finding 40 other dogs to expose the dog to (whether in a class or in a park or whatever) and not avoiding other dogs? Why is one right and one wrong?
5) Do we need a revival in an understanding of “dogginess”? (A celebration of Jungian dog archetypes, if you want to get fancy-dancy?) Can we re-find the validity of the warrior dog, messenger dog, defender dog, hunting dog in our own backyards?
Talk to me! I am very interested to hear if you think I am completely off-base, or if you have thoughts to add or ways to solve these problems. Should I start a new blog like the Art of Manliness called the Art of Dogginess? 🙂 Hmmm… primal weekends with dogs howling at the moon – it could work!
Today I tried to count how many times I saw the dogs use their mouths on each other, and I lost track after about a hundred – in about half an hour. I also counted how many times they used their mouths on humans, and aside from Godric’s hand-chewing the grand total was zero.
No big whoop, you should be saying. Aren’t your dogs “good dogs”? That means they shouldn’t ever bite people. This shouldn’t be some kind of dramatic statistic.
The world of dog ownership in this country has defined dogs who bite people as “bad” dogs and dogs who don’t bite people as “good” dogs. I read – frequently – about how dogs with “biting problems” (usually defined as one human bite, or maybe two, or even a couple of dog bites) are the enemy, like “I can’t believe they let a dog with a known biting problem into that therapy program” or “She’s a bad breeder; my dog grew up and turned out to have a biting problem.”
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s very worthwhile for anyone interested in the changing role of dogs in this country to read the dog fiction that has been written over the last century or so.
I’ve always loved the “hero dog” books – White Fang, Lassie, Buff, Algonquin. And, TO A ONE, those books have a dramatic confrontation in which a dog bites a human. Lad bites. Old Yeller bites people. Savage Sam kills somebody. Heck, Buck kills an entire group of people. Lassie bites. Fortinbras growls at people and offers to bite them. Toto, Huan (from the Silmarillion), Jip, Roy the wolfhound who solves a Holmes mystery by attacking and almost killing his master, Kazan and Baree – I could go on and on. Every hero dog attacks people, every hero dog attacks other dogs. There was some sort of cultural expectation that if you did something stupid or bad, a dog would bite you, and it would be YOUR fault.
Now, in 2011, if a dog ever bites anyone or anything, it’s a bad dog and should be put down or at the very least isolated from life forever and ever. Something must be wrong in its brain and it is never to be trusted again.
In fact, the old books were right. We’re the ones who are wrong. I promise, I don’t think that a dog should go tear the throats out of twenty people, even if they are kidnappers or something, but what is very correct about those old books is that dogs live according to a very simple and very pure moral code, and if a person does something that breaks that code and won’t listen as the dog tries to tell them that they’re doing something wrong, they’re going to eventually get bitten.
What we are actually seeing when we make the 2011-style “good dog/bad dog” statements is not a dog who won’t bite versus a dog who will bite. We’re seeing a dog who is very patient and accepting of mistakes versus a dog who is slightly less patient. It’s always amazing to me how my dogs do their absolute best to include me in the conversation, doing the dog version of speaking really loudly and slowly – big wide tail movements, big slow mouth smiles, exaggerated ears. When it comes to disciplining me, they are even more forebearing; I don’t get a mouth correction unless I do something really awful (and the current dogs, with the exception of Bramble, have actually never given me a mouth correction even when I richly deserve it), whereas they’ll correct each other with mouths on a constant basis.
That’s why it’s ridiculous that we have a line in the sand when it comes to dogs biting people. Dogs don’t have a biting problem – they bit because they felt they needed to. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time it was a human problem and not the dog. That’s why there are so many “former biters” in therapy dog programs or living with kids or happily placed in homes. They aren’t former biters, and they weren’t problems. But back then they felt that they needed to bite and now they don’t. If they don’t feel they need to bite, they are no more likely to do so now than any other dog. The stupidity of the “biting problem” is like telling someone that once they yell in frustration they can never be trusted again and now they’re a problem yeller, and why can’t they be like Mrs. Henkel who never speaks above a whisper, and there must be something wrong with them because they yelled. Put that person in an opera audience and he’s no longer a yeller. Put Mrs. Henkel in a room full of fire ants and I promise you she’s going to be a yeller.
A dog who is biting is a dog who is in a room full of fire ants. He’s being pushed beyond what he can bear. For some, like Bramble, the “fire ants” stage is reached very quickly, especially when he’s nervous about the person involved (I can do anything with him; my brother-in-law terrifies him and wouldn’t even be able to touch him); for Clue, you’d almost have to threaten to cut off her leg or something before she’d get there. But it’s the same stage, both dogs WILL bite, and Clue is no more “good” than Bramble is.
The one thing I think we’re allowed to still say about biting is that it’s a sign that something’s very wrong. It’s something wrong with the environment or the people or the dog’s life or health, not with the dog’s soul, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sign that something must change. For some dogs the greatest gift you can give them is to rehome them – second homes are often “miracle workers” for biting dogs because whatever it was that was driving the dog crazy is no longer there. For others adequate changes can be made in the existing home to bring the dog back under the stress threshold and make him “not a biter.” Biting is always a reason to seek out a vet and a good, sympathetic behaviorist (wow, I am pulling out ALL the ancient posts today), but it’s not a life-ending crisis or a disaster. It’s a caution sign and a reason to reevaluate exactly what happened and what went wrong and, if possible, to remove the likelihood of the situation occurring again in exactly the same way.
Now go tell somebody she’s a good dog. Because she is.
A few weeks ago I talked about this situation, where a dog purchased to fill the emotional needs of a second dog was doomed to failure. To no one’s surprise, after I wrote that post the dog was rehomed. It’s what the owner reveals about what happened next that I think should be interesting to us.
To make a long story short, the dog is fantastic in his new home. Anything that was described as bullying, insecurity, undesirable behavior… all gone. The puppy is one of the most talented the new home has ever seen.
Since the first owner makes her living as a dog behaviorist, this should give you something to think about.
I’ve now talked to several people who have either trained for many years or who are observation-based behaviorists (the kind who sit in a dog park for six hours and stare at dogs – try it sometime if you want to blow your mind) who say, very firmly, “There is nothing in any temperament test or aptitude test or tea leaf reading that can equal looking in the mirror. You want to know what kind of dog you’re going to end up with? Look at yourself.”
The more rescue I do, the more dog swapping I do, the more the dogs move in and out of my home, the more I am convinced that is the truth. The key to success is the OWNER, and each owner has strengths and weaknesses that bring out the best and worst in various dogs.
There are a few things I am really good at. I can get dogs to eat. ALWAYS, I can get dogs to eat. I can get sick dogs healthy. I can get crazy dogs to calm down. I can get status-obsessed dogs to be respectful. Bad, naughty, pushy dogs love it here. When I have dogs with those needs, I look like a total miracle worker without having to do that much at all.
There are also some things that I am TERRIBLE at. I am not good with soft dogs. Scared dogs, I can reach, but temperamentally soft dogs I constantly make mistakes with. I am too “big” for them, too loud and too gestural and I make the wrong noises, I think – I try to jolly them along with my usual oh-what-glorious-fun-we-shall-have language, and they go under the deck. When I have a soft dog I am constantly having to remind myself to shut up and slow down and make myself tiny, and even then I don’t think I can really reach them. I am really bad with dogs who need to be protected. Some owners, and you know the ones, build this wonderful cocoon around their dogs. Dogs who feel lost and alone and insecure, the ones who remember every slight, come into those homes and find that warm nest and snuggle in and thrive. I am HORRIBLE at that. I am a big meathead, I trip over dogs, I sing and yell and act like an idiot most of the time, and I do best with dogs who forgive and forget instantly.
The people who are fantastic with soft dogs but who buy a harder dog because the temperament test “told” them to end up with insecurity and bullying. The ones who are good with harder dogs, but who buy a dog who is soft because the temperament testing told them to, end up with miserable scared flinchy dogs.
Both owners feel that they’ve been failed, by the breeder and by the dog.
And, almost invariably, when the dog is returned or given up or sold into the type of family or home that meets its needs, all the “problems” vanish with nobody having to do anything. Dogs turn around completely in about fifteen minutes.
I think as breeders we need to do a better job defining our puppies and our owners. All the temperament tests I’m aware of score the dogs according to some ideal, with the dogs scoring 3s (or Bs and Cs or whatever other middle road the test defines) being the ones that will thrive in almost any home, so the ones that score in the middle are the ones we put in the homes who want a dog to do obedience, or the homes where there are a bunch of novices, or the homes with little kids, or whatever.
But is that really true? Do we really want to put “average” puppies in those homes, without thinking about it a little deeper than that? I’ve certainly come to the conclusion that I can’t anymore. Those novices might in fact need a really, really soft dog. Or they might need a hard-nosed brat dog. Just because they’re novices, or have little kids, that doesn’t mean that their fundamental personality thrives with our middle-of-the-road puppies. We need to temperament-test the owners even more than the puppies!
Bringing it home and smacking me with it upside the head:
In the course of dog-swapping this last weekend, Bronte went back to New York with Kate. As you may remember, she was going to stay with Kate forever-n-ever after the puppies were born, but she got REALLY sick and wouldn’t eat, so she came back to me. For a year and a half Bronte’s been a soft dog in my house, living the life that soft dogs live here, which means she sits on the couch and worries a great deal about whether I’m going to spontaneously fall over or start singing off-key, and on a regular basis her fears are realized. This weekend, after watching Bronte play with her kids, Kate said “I want her back.”
Those who are not show breeders may not realize how incredibly sacrificial this is – Bronte is a pet now, spayed. Kate doesn’t have a ton of spaces for dogs, and Bronte would take up one that “should” go to a show dog or growing-up puppy. Even if Kate rehomes her from New York – which she may do and has more than my blessing to do – for weeks or months Kate’s got to deal with another dog. None of us have a lot of money, and another mouth to feed is not a small consideration.
As soon as they got home, Kate called me and said “Joanna, she is SO HAPPY. Bronte is the happiest I have EVER seen her.” She’d been there an hour and she was flirting with everybody and sparkling with joy.
THAT is what happens when a dog is in the right situation. She went from me, who was not right for her no matter how hard I try, and into a situation where she felt like she fit, and instantly she knew.
All dog people read the same sets of blogs, and this week all anybody is reading or commenting on is Patricia McConnell’s blog, because she’s considering rehoming her young puppy (a puppy who is already her second one in the litter – she returned the first puppy she bought very quickly).
This has highlighted what I think is an important concept, which is when you buy a dog to do a job, failure at that job means they leave.
It’s common for breeders to rehome dogs who are never going to finish or who needed to be neutered for some reason or who cannot be bred or who are done producing puppies. Their role is over in the household, so they leave. We breeders like to assign nice words to it, but that’s what’s happening.
Those who are serious agility competitors or performance competitors will rehome dogs who are not ever going to meet their expectations.
Field (hunting or other working) breeders rehome those who cannot reach success in that venue.
Service-dog owners rehome dogs who wash out of the program.
And so on.
I don’t personally have any problem with rehoming; I think it’s usually a great blessing on all sides. As you know, we’re currently looking for a place for Bronte, so I obviously don’t think that changing homes is bad for dogs. Where I start to feel uncomfortable is when the job that’s been assigned is beyond the reach of the dog, so failure and rehoming become almost inevitable.
When people buy a dog “for the kids,” the dog is going to fail, and the dog will leave. It’ll either be rehomed or thrown in the back yard or basement. When people buy a dog to be a child, the dog will either fail or, if it’s such a fantastic dog that it tries to shape itself into a child, be spectacularly twisted into something that’s not really a healthy dog anymore. Either way, it will leave (or check out). In both of those scenarios the failure is a foregone conclusion.
In McConnell’s case, her puppy’s job was to nurture and feed the emotional identity of her older dog, a dog who has had a huge number of issues and who is emotionally frail. He is obviously loved in the way that we tend to love frail creatures, with more than a bit of pity and protectiveness. The puppies she’s bringing in do not feel pity and protectiveness toward this weak creature; they just steal his stuff and run off. Dogs are nothing if not realistic about the ability of another living creature to stand up for himself. And so she replaces the first puppy with the second puppy and is now probably going to replace the second puppy with (something?).
I have Feelings about whether it’s a good idea to buy a dog for a dog, but the fact is that regardless of whether I think it’s a good idea or not, the dogs are failing, and they’re very likely to continue to fail. She looks at her older dog and sees the whole swirl of what he was and how hard she worked and how much better he is and how he’s really almost normal now, and feels that protectiveness and that pride and the affection for everything that he is. That’s entirely natural and normal and the way we all feel toward something we’ve pulled back from the brink. There’s nothing wrong about how she feels. Unfortunately, another dog looks at him and only sees a “kick me” sign.
That’s never going to change; dogs are almost impossible to fool. If at some point she comes across a dog who is so incredibly forgiving and undemanding that he never takes advantage of that weakness, I’ll be amazed but happy for them. But amazed. She’s not doing anything “wrong” – she treats the dogs beautifully, the rehomed puppies come beautifully trained, and so on. I in no way want anyone to think that I don’t respect her as a dog owner. I just don’t think in this case she’s going to ever get what she’s looking for.
I’ve made this mistake, by the way. I try to never write about anything I haven’t failed at. The job I was looking to fill was to replace Lucy, my Dane-of-all-Danes. She died young and it absolutely broke me. I kept looking for her in her daughters and her granddaughters, and I had a very hard time separating my emotional response to them from my emotional response to HER. Any way in which they resembled her was good; any way in which they did not was bad. I sold the wrong puppies from litters because I would try to keep the one that was most like her, even when I had a better emotional connection with a very dissimilar puppy. I was fumbling toward something that was never going to succeed.
What snapped me out of it was Clue, a puppy we bought because the kids were bugging me to get a little dog that could sleep on their beds. I had it all worked out that this funny-looking little thing could be the family house dog and the kids could show her and play around with juniors and so on while I kept my focus on the big dogs. I had just had a couple of major losses and was incredibly discouraged (heck, I’d been discouraged for years) but I was getting ready to send a deposit overseas to import a dog who was closely related to Lucy, to try one more time to get her back.
Well, I think you can guess the rest. Clue came out of that shipping crate and looked at me and all the bushes around us spontaneously flowered and pink-haired unicorns twirled around while Rick Springfield rose up out of the lawn and sang. And she was, ahem, not the kids’ dog.
If and when Clue goes to her notable reward, she’s taught me not to look for her.
I would never want anyone to think that they MUST keep a dog. In fact, if you can smell failure I’d rather have you rehome the dog soon, while it is still young and will easily and happily adjust to its new home. But I hope we can maybe shape ourselves to give them jobs they have at least a decent chance at succeeding at, give them a fighting chance to stay, so when another decision is made it’s for the happiness of both sides.
(McConnell’s book is wonderful, by the way. You should definitely read it, and I think you should follow her blog as well. Just beware of putting anyone up on a pedestal.)
The dog breeding world, and the dog training world, can be an incredibly difficult place to be.
This comes, I think, from an overwhelmingly good place. We feel very strongly about dogs and how they should be treated. We are extremely tough on ourselves; our standard are very high. However, the terrible thing about this attitude is that it so often becomes an avenue for being horrible to other people.
This is not about blowing the whistle on breeders who are really unethical, who let dogs end up in rescue or who abandon owners. This is about the infighting that goes on within the reputable breeder community, and within the reputable training community.
The root of the whole thing, I think, is not being able to imagine anything but your own reality. Because it would be difficult or impossible for me to do X or Y correctly, I decide that it's impossible for ANYBODY to do it correctly and therefore it's the wrong way to do it. This would be fine if we all just shut up, but we never do. We can't stand not to talk about it, and we tear each other down in a way that's tragic.
This was vividly illustrated to me when I was reading a training manual last night. The trainer was completely new to me but has a slick website and a high-priced program and lots of endorsements.
His methods seemed to me to be very common-sense; exercise a lot, reward a lot, engage drive. What stopped me in my tracks was his response to any question about owning more than one dog.
Don't, he said.
Dogs don't need other dogs. Dogs are stressed by other dogs. People can't adequately train more than one. Dogs don't need more pack interaction. If you have one, that should be enough for anybody.
Looking around at my floor, carpeted with various dogs, I thought What on earth is this guy smoking? But then I read his biography, and lo and behold he has never owned more than one dog at once. He doesn't say so in so many words, but he talked about his dogs and they were definitely in a single-file line.
AHA, I thought; of course. For him, owning more than one dog would be a crisis. He is smart enough and self-aware enough to know this, so he keeps his numbers very low. However, he is not other-aware enough to realize that he's mixing up his own feelings about multiple dogs with objective statements about multiple dogs.
We must distinguish between choosing something because it's right and choosing something because we don't understand the alternatives.
For example, is it objectively wrong to own more than five dogs, or ten dogs, or twenty dogs, or does our "There's no way they can all get enough attention" really mean "There's no way I could give them enough attention"?
Is it objectively wrong to give a dog a collar correction, or does our "It's cruel and painful" mean "I don't know how to do it in a way that's not cruel and painful"?
Is it objectively wrong to breed more than two litters a year, or does our "She must be a puppy mill" really mean "In that situation, I would be doing it for the money"?
Is it actually impossible to have a careful breeding program if you're selling a lot of dogs — or would it just be impossible for me?
Is it objectively wrong to lure/treat dogs, or does our "That's just bribery" really mean "I don't know how to do it right"?
Is it objectively wrong to have a kennel, or is it that you don't know how to properly care for dogs in one? Is it wrong to have dogs in an apartment or is it just that you couldn't do it right? Is it wrong to roll a dog or is it just that you can't tell the difference between a dog responding correctly to it and a dog who is not?
I see so many trainers with their YouTube videos spending 35 minutes trashing other training methods and five minutes explaining their own. And, in just about every case, what I really hear is "This method is the one I am really good at." It's the one that has always made sense to them, the one they can see working, the one that they can do very well. They don't realize that other people have the exact same feelings about THEIR method. The first thinks the second is cruel. The second thinks the first is fooling herself. When you watch either one actually working dogs, the dogs are happy and content and working well and eager. The dogs obviously don't think the first is stupid or the second is cruel. The dogs wouldn't pay to hear either one on the lecture circuit throwing bags of flaming poop at each other.
The cure for this must be that we stop looking at the people and start looking at the dogs. Is the dog happy? Is the group of dogs obviously well cared for and relaxed? Are they clean and content? Are they well bonded with their owners and the environment is stable and balanced? Is the breeding program producing positive results, an increase in soundness or longevity or temperament? If so, I may choose to leave the class and look for another one, or I may choose to run my breeding program a different way, or I may choose to not go over two dogs in my household.
But I need to realize where my convictions are based on objectives and where they are just evidence of my own abilities (or lack thereof).
It’s wrong to call the behavior “unacceptable” so long as it’s not wrong from a dog’s point of view.
Turid Rugaas, one of my personal dog heroes, said that. I've been going back and reading all her articles recently, and then letting them sit on my tongue and sink in, past the sweet buds and into the salty and bitter. Trying to use them as more of a checklist for myself than as advice for others.
Isn't this line a bit of a kick in the shorts? How many times have you used the word "unacceptable" when it comes to your dog? How many times have you decided that two feet away is acceptable but three feet away was UN?
The other way Turid put the same concept was to ask if another dog would care about the behavior. Would another dog be offended? If not, why are we thinking the sky is falling?
This, my friends, is very hard to do.
Think about all the reasons you discipline a dog – sniffing the counters, pulling on the leash, nose in the crotch, feet on the furniture. We use that same word – unacceptable – about all of them. But all of them are completely normal and would never be a cause for concern in a dog family. What THEY label as wrong are coming at them straight on. Hugging. Taking something out of their mouths. Touching their beds or bones.
All these things we ask them to accept, and in fact get very angry when they don't, but we rarely ask anything of ourselves. We don't even ask ourselves to admit that they may be very troubled by how we ask them to live and behave and grow up.
Turid is the best I know at insisting – gently, quietly – that people look at things from the dog's point of view. WHY is this behavior bothering us so much? WHY must it end? What are the consequences if it doesn't end? Will the world stop spinning? How can we take upon ourselves, as owners, the responsibility for "behaving" when the action from the dog's point of view is normal and right?
Tonight, after reading that, in my continual quest to Become A Fan Of Bramble, I took him outside with me off-leash.
We've been doing this for months now, because I NEED my dogs to have a reliable off-leash recall. So much of what we do with them is outside; we'll routinely drive an hour or more to get to an off-leash walking or hiking area or a beach. A dog who is stuck on a four-foot leash really misses out on a lot of fun and ends up being left behind most of the time because I can't carry a baby, shepherd Tabitha, and hold a leash at the same time. So, for weeks and weeks, I've been trying to get him more reliable off-leash. And yes, we've done all the "right" things, starting with a long line or a recall inside a fence and so on. He's perfect as long as he knows he has a line on or can't get away. The moment he knows he has freedom, GONE.
All lessons take place at 3 AM or so, because there are no cars on the road (or, for that matter, within about a mile) so I don't have wheeled homicide to think about.
Anyway, with Bramble, here's how this always goes:
1) I take him out, feeding him bits of treats or kibble and verbally rewarding him for responding to my "close! close!" command. (I know; weird – it's a command I made up for "stick close to me but not in wrapped heel position.")
2) Fourteen seconds later, he bolts down the lawn.
3) I begin to call him.
4) He runs full-tilt across the road.
5) I get more and more wheedly, higher-pitched, worried.
6) I shake his food bowl or treat bag. Whistle. Call him more. Say bad words in my head.
7) I walk across the road and follow him into the woods, calling and whistling. More bad words in my head, trying to keep my voice light and calm as I call him.
8) I eventually find him, usually several hundred feet into the woods. When he sees me approach, he flattens submissively to the ground and shows his belly. his eyes flat and scared. I pick him up or put a leash on him, and then we walk back, me continually rewarding him for a nice "close" the whole way home. We get inside and I collapse on the chair and think about what horrible things would happen to him if he just kept on running.
Last night, as I wrote about yesterday, he came back on his own for the first time. No tracking him down. I did, however, call him constantly, go across the road and shake the treat bag, whistle, walk along the edge of the woods, etc.
Tonight, I said "Nothing is unacceptable. Nothing is unacceptable. Breathe. Nothing is unacceptable." And I opened the door.
He, as usual, walked out with me and looked for his treats, which I gave to him as we walked. As usual, he booted it across the lawn as soon as we were a few steps away from the house.
And I sat down in the grass under our garage light.
But I shut up.
I heard him run across the road and throw himself into the woods. I didn't move. I looked at baby grass. I poked an ant.
I picked up the treat bag. Put it down. Picked it up again. Put it down harder to "accidentally" make a shaking noise.
Put the treat bag out of reach to avoid temptation.
Thought about whether the pumpkins were growing. That took about three-quarters of a second and then I was back to straining to hear any noise from the woods.
I heard a stick break. It sounds like it's in the next zip code. He's GONE! He's TOTALLY GONE. I stood up.
I sat down.
I put my forehead on my knees.
Bramble jumped on my neck.
I looked up, tried to say something, said "Can you down?" and he flung himself on his back, wiggling his paws at me. Downs and sits and downs again, offers me a high-five, rolls over. Many treats.
And then all on his own he ran to the door and jumped against it to be let in.
Tonight was the first time, the FIRST, in all these months that I have felt that little spiderweb of joining with him. The first I have not gotten that fear/sorrow/regressing/shutting in message from him. The first I felt him make a decision to approach and open up and connect, and knew that he was getting a kick out of my pleasure. It was such a tiny little step but so very worth it.
And it's because I let him run across the road. Of that I am sure. It's the one thing he always wants to do, the one thing I always try to shut down, the point at which I start to yell, the trigger for all the times it's been an arm-wrestling match between him and me.
I shut up and let him do it, and the difference was enormous.
Now please – I don't want anybody thinking that you should just let your dogs run across roads all the time. I'm certainly not going to start letting him run across – or even approach – the road during the day; I'm not going to start teaching baby puppies to go in the road. What I mean is that when I let go of that UNACCEPTABLE, I made a connection that will, if I am careful and savvy and open to him talking to me, allow me to eventually call him off the road, or away from things that are dangerous, because he feels like I'm on his side and not against him. The fact that it was the road really means nothing; it could have been any issue.
If I am trying to see things from my dog's point of view, ending the use of that word "unacceptable," I will do less punishing and begin to expect more of myself. A dog who jumps up on the counters reminds me that my first job is to put the food up high, and THEN we train no noses on counters. My first job is giving the dog confidence that I am good at screening guests, THEN we work on no crotch-sniffing. My first job is providing enough exercise, THEN we work on not chewing the couch. I behave; now we have a conversation about what living in my pack means. I'm predictable; now we talk about you trusting me enough not to fear-bark all the time. I'm stable; now we figure out how to travel together.
If I have not behaved first, if I am still seeing That Dog as an obstacle that must be overcome, then all I will do is punish and punish and punish while the gulf between us widens.
I have the frontal cortex; I need to use it to imagine what it is like to be a dog before I can expect the dog to behave like a (polite) human.
And Bramble? Got a bowl of ice cream inside. And we'll try it again tomorrow.
If this was helpful to you and you'd like to help us rescue and foster dogs, here are Amazon links to the books and tools mentioned in the article – and thank you so much!