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1 March 2011

Freida and the tractor: A minor miracle. Training video

Frieda and the tractor. Sweet moment

Chris Barrett showed up in his tractor to help get the buried farm cleared up a bit, as we start icing and melting. So this was a training opp for me and Frieda. She used to go crazy around tractors and tear off after them, out of control. So I brought her outside, stood for five minutes talking with Chris Barrett and Frieda was a doll. She didn't bark once. It was noisy- a car also came up the road – so things were, as always, a bit unpredictable. But she did wonderfully, and it was a big moment for her to be able to do that. Training is not about obedience. It is a spiritual communication with an animal, and a way of showing dogs how to live in our confusing and often hostile world.

Frieda is a star. Come along with us.

27 December 2010

Freida, Junkyard Dog in a storm

Junkyard dog in a storm

Frieda is a proud member of that glorious canine subspecies, the Junkyard Dog. I am certain she was a guard dog in Glens Falls, and now she is a junkyard dog on a farm, loving the snow, sticking her nose in everywhere. There is a lot of fun in Frieda, although she doesn't always have a sense of her strength. She is fun in a blizzard.

12 October 2015

Crossroads: Fate Getting Spayed

Fate Gets Spayed

Fate Gets Spayed

Tomorrow morning, Fate and I will not be following our usual routine, she will be at the vet's getting spayed. That is the breeder's wish, and it is my wish and Maria's as well. I'm not concerned about the medical side of it, our vet knows what she is doing. I admit to some emotional pull from this, as Fate is such a joyous and industrious creature, I feel as if we are bringing the harsh realities of life to her, she has fun almost every minute of her life.

There is also the practical question of how we are going to keep her still for the eleven days the vet wants her to be still. We will figure it out. This is another sign of Fate growing up, and she will sorely miss working the sheep for more than a week. We will have to be extra vigilant, use our crates frequently.

Fate leaps up and down on things all days, flips her toys in the air, wrestles with Red, walks with Maria in the woods, chases sheep and digs huge holes in the yard, jumps up on footstools, flings her toys in the air and catches them.

So a rite of passage, she will feel some pain tomorrow and some disorientation and the first period of enforced idleness in her life. I'm not sure if she is staying over Tuesday night at the vet's or not, or when she is coming out. I'll figure it out tomorrow.

So a rite of passage, for her, for Maria, for me. None of us likes to see our dogs suffer at all, or enjoys leaving them at the vet for surgery. But I am glad to do it, a female dog in the country as active as Fate is asking for all kinds of trouble. I want her to be safe and comfortable much more than I feel the need to spare her some unpleasantness.

And the world does not need more unwanted puppies.

When I mentioned a month ago that she was going to be spayed I did receive, of course, a lot of messages from the amateur doctors, vets and therapists who believe that  Facebook account is the equivalent of a medical degree of one kind or another.  My last therapist cautioned me about the plague of amateur and para-professionals unleashed by the Internet. Be careful with them. I do not try and cure anxious or troubled people, I urge them to get help from trained professionals.

I'm happy to teach writing, I think it's unethical to play doctor or therapist. I heard quickly from the Fear And Loathing community when I said Fate was going to be spayed, many were quick to point out how dangerous spaying is, how unnecessary, how cruel and exploitive. None of them lived on a farm. Perhaps they will be distracted by the great crush of people needing their guidance and counsel and forget about me and Fate.

I believe in the lost art of minding one's business.  I remember my mother sitting me down one day when I asked a cousin a personal question. I was curious about him. People have the right to their own space, she said, they have their business and you have yours, and you need to respect their space and make sure that they respect yours. Think of it as a line you ought not to cross.

My mother had a lot of struggles in her life, and rarely gave any kind of advice. But I remember that advice, and it stuck. She would not have cared for social media, and the new notion of minding everyone else's business, unless it involved members of her Bridge Club. I believe that good boundaries are a foundation of good health and well-being.

And social media is the biggest boundary-buster in human history. At our Open House, someone I had never met came up to me and aggressively crossed as many boundaries as you can break in a few minutes. She began by telling me that I should be talking to my late friend Paul, and then assuring me that if I wished for good weather it would come, finally badgering me to imagine a men's group, and it would materialize.

The ascending spiritual notion of getting everything you want if you wish for it was familiar to me. I was told by several spiritual counselors to wish for the first farm to be sold, and then, to wish for a million dollars. I was assured good things would come to me I only allowed positive thoughts in my head. I tried telling this to the bank, but they hadn't heard about it, the house did not sell and I'm still looking for the money. We did plant a bunch of St. Joseph's statues on the grounds, Maria's dog Freida loved to dig them up and eat them.

I don't care for this idea, we can't all be God, even on Facebook, where the new priests are legion. In recent years, I have developed good antennae when it comes to the crossing of boundaries, bells  go off when mine are trampled.  Just step back, the therapist counseled, or failing that, run away. Iit doesn't feel good.

Anyway, spaying is the right decision for Fate and for us.  I would be lying if I didn't say I will be thinking of her during the operation. And I am sure, I will be dealing with her for the next eleven days, trying to get this nuclear reactor with fur to be still.

Welcome to the real world, Fate. By Thursday you'll be driving us nuts.

Posted in General
11 April 2014

The Rescue Impulse: Sebastian’s Journey. And Mine

Sebastian's Journey

Sebastian's Journey


They call him Pockets now, I first saw an image of him when he was called Sebastian, and I was strongly drawn to this dog, and to the idea that I might be able to save him from a lifetime of change, confusion and fear. Last night, I had a good and long talk about Sebastian – Pockets – with Sarah Katz Fostello, an articulate, honest and conscientious rescue volunteer at bigflullydogrescue, a group that has been trying to save Sebastian for some time now.

I liked Sarah right away, her big heart and straightforward manner spoke to the best of the rescue impulse, also to it's complex and sometimes troubling underside. When Sebastian was brought up to Massachusetts, a lot of people sent me his photo, I am, I guess, well known for loving crazy border collies and taking them on.  Something about his photo – perhaps because he looked so much like Orson, Izzy and Rose – drew me to him, I e-mailed the group to inquire about him, pushed along by many border-collie and blog and book readers.

Sebastian was the kind of dog animal lovers dearly want to rescue, he has a strong back story, he is beautiful, his eyes speak of intelligence and affection. Sarah and I have been exchanging phone messages for a couple of weeks, I had the idea Sebastian had been adopted. It isn't that simple of course.

Sebastian is one of those dogs whose life trajectory is going to be either tragic or uplifting, that is not year clear. He was in a Southern United States shelter and was about to be put down, he was classified as unadoptable. Sebastian was anxious and unpredictable and failed a food aggression test – they stick a plastic hand into a food bowl and if a dog bites or growls, he fails. The rescue group decided the shelter's decision was inappropriate, and they brought him North to be evaluated, the story of many Southern rescue dogs, and to be saved. Many of you know this story.

Nothing about his background – his breeding, genetics, litter  history or social experience – is known. He is large for a border collie, about 60 pounds, and a bit schizophrenic. In one way or another, Sebastian has been damaged.  People tend to see all troubled border collies as being abused – many are skittish around sticks, brooms, smooth floors, strange sounds, the movement of lights, erratic human movement. But the breed is often high strung, nervous and easily aroused. Many are bred poorly, especially in rural areas, and have many behavioral problems.

Abuse has become the template to explain and sometimes excuse every kind of problem in a dog, but most often, that is not the cause of the trouble. Bad breeding, trouble in the litter,  or bad human behavior is much more likely to be the cause. Lots of perfectly healthy border collies are just a little crazy and the key to living with them is loving them for it, not always easy, as they are not always crazy in the ways we approve of. And most people are neither patient nor committed.

Sarah was fostering Sebastian, she fell in love with him. She says he is a great dog.  He is a beautiful dog, she said, sweet and loving and responsive. He was also very anxious sometimes, afraid of objects that moved, sticks, brooms. She said she made enormous progress with him, he was calming down.  Then one day her eleven-year-old daughter came into the room with a broom and Sebastian suddenly and  moved towards her, barking and growling, even standing up on his hind legs. Something about her either frightened or aroused him.

Sarah's daughter knows how to behave with dogs – there are always a bunch around, I suspect – she calmly and authoritatively told Sebastian to get back and he did, he actually ran away. A few minutes later he was in her lap cuddling. Then she entered a room again and he growled at her again and repeated the behavior. Sarah couldn't imagine or explain why this happened, she and her husband decided this wasn't the right place for the dog, and so he is in another foster home and she contacted me saying he needs and hopes I will consider taking him. I admire Sarah for her decisions, both in trying and putting her family's safety first. Rescue is hard emotionally, clear-headed people are the best at it.

I am considering Sebastian, I said I would take the weekend to think about it. I told her the odds were long against it, there are a lot of things happening in my life right now, there are a lot of animals here, blogs and books and photos, donkeys, chickens and cats. The rescue impulse is powerful and complex, we all want to be heroes – Sarah Katz Fostello is one, sounds like – but that is as dangerous an impulse sometimes as it is noble.

This dog – I'll call him Pockets now – has a lot of problems. In a sense, he's a loaded gun, a crapshoot. With rescue dogs, we often do not know the source of their troubles, which can make the solutions difficult. Pockets might be inbred, have been mistreated, be damaged in some genetic way, bred incompetently, traumatized by people or other dogs or his mother or siblings in the litter.

There is no way to know. That is why I often get my dogs from good breeders, I need and want to know where they come from. Lenore and Rose and Red and Izzy have been wonderful dogs for me, in part because they were bred for temperament and work. I've had great rescue dogs as well, which is why I believe there is no one way to get a dog, people need to do what works for them. I never tell anybody else how to get a dog. I've had a dog – Orson – who hurt people, and it will not happen again in my life with dogs. I doubt Pockets is an aggressive dog, but his behavioral problems are serious, not just minor things to work through. I value dogs like Red and Lenore, I can take them anywhere, if children rush up to them and grab their ears or pull biscuits right out of their mouth, I don't have to worry about it, nobody is going to get hurt. I value that in my life.

There are millions of dogs in shelters all across America – 12 million at last count – and there is something wrong with a system and a culture that leaves so many animals stranded and in need. Perhaps we are saying yes too often.

The food test for Pockets and the arousal around Sarah's daughter are bothersome, not necessarily critical. My theory about aggression is that dogs who are aggressive bite, they don't pretend to bite.  But fearful dogs might bite at any time, it is not that they are bad, it is simply that things can frighten them. And we may never know or understand the triggers until they are upon us.  Freida often looked as if she intended to kill me but I knew if she wanted to bite me, it would be easy enough, dogs know how to do it. She never did, I have never seen her as aggressive, I suspect Pockets is similar.

A dog like Pockets would, in my mind, take years to really ground and calm down, assuming he isn't damaged in some permanent way. It would be stressful on me, the other dogs, possibly even the other animals on the farm. Or I might have a magic touch, and it might just work. Red had plenty of issues when he came to me, he had never even lived in a house, but he is a wonderfully bred and grounded animal, generous and spirit and calm in demeanor.  Part of that, I can see, is his breeding. Dogs like Pockets rarely become good herding dogs, they have too many other issues and need to start when they are very young. So work would have to be different for him, balls or frisbees, something like that.

I think it is very important when dealing with the rescue impulse to be honest with oneself, to know oneself. Am I doing it to be a hero, to feel good? Or can this really work? Am I committed to it? Why am I drawn to it?  Every dog can not be saved, every dog cannot be flipped, it is arrogant to think so. You can think the shelter was cruel to write him off, or also think they might have seen something we need to consider. I don't really know. Just because they thought he shouldn't be put up for adoption doesn't mean they were wrong.

I have more respect for death than many people in the animal world, I do not believe it is humane to keep dogs in crates for their whole natural lives under the guise of loving them.  It is selfish to me, and cruel. Pockets needs resolution – he either needs a home where someone will commit to him for the long and hard and loving haul, or, if he is not salvageable in the human world, he needs resolution and peace, not a life of being bounced from one place to other, or ending up in a crate, a cruel fate for any border collie.

I understand that many people will look at a beautiful dog like this, see the spirit in his eyes and believe strongly that I should take him in. For me, it is not simple, not so clear. But it deserves thought and consideration, I am doing both. It is a wonderful thing to save a dog like that, I completely understand why people are drawn to it, few things in life feel better or more satisfying. It is also wonderful to know oneself and one's limits, to protect and care for the animals I already have, to know what I cannot do as well as what I can do.

I like the look on Pocket's face, I love the breed, they are crazy in ways that I am crazy, we understand one another,  but I don't know if I can really save him or not, or even if I should try. I have great respect for Sarah and what she and the group are doing for him and anyone reading this who feels they can help him should feel free to consider it and contact this dedicated rescue  group. Last night I was leaning towards it, this morning not.

I will be thinking hard on this over the next day or two and I will share the process, as always.

Posted in General
9 October 2013

“Second Chance Dog: A Love Story”, FIrst Copies. Frieda Approves.

Freida And The New Book

Freida And The New Book

Random House sent me two copies of "Second Chance Dog: A Love Story," just off the press, always a neat thing for a writer to see. So I took Frieda out on the porch and showed it to her. She took it in stride, but it is exciting to see it. This remarkable creature gave me quite a spin, she is a lot of dog with a lot of personality, and she did, in fact, change my life quite a bit.

She is a Helldog still, in many ways, but she has a great and loyal heart and she is all dog. The book will be published on November 12, and can be pre-ordered anywhere books are sold – Amazon, Nook,, Ibooks, Ipad, smartphones. If you pre-order it from Battenkill Books, my local bookstore, Maria and I will sign and personalize it and you will be eligible to win one of 100 bags of free dog food from Fromm Family Food. You can pre-order it here. You can also call Battenkill at 518 677-2515. Buy local, help save the world from corporate domination.



Posted in General