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26 September 2016

Therapy Work. Red And Mary’s Cat

By: Jon Katz
Red And Mary's Cat

Red And Mary's Cat

Mary has been at the assisted care facility since May, she moved to be close to her daughter. In order to move there, she had to turn her five-year-old cat over to the animal shelter in her small town, and she misses the cat and is worried about what has happened to her.

She is one of our regular visits, and she loves to stroke and touch Red, she smiles and talks softly to him, he sometimes lies at her feet and looks up at her. She loves the feel of him and the affection emanating from him. It never fails to amaze me how much it means to people at the edge of life when they see a dog, animals are a channel to their best, to love and good memories, to the connection of life.

Many of the people I meet are content where they are, they feel safe. There is sometimes an inevitable loneliness in the air, even in the best kind of care. Somehow, the spirit of an animal eases that, brings smiles.

Mary said she was worried about her cat, she had some difficult "problems" and wondered if she had been adopted. I wrote down the name of the shelter and said I would call them and find out what happened to her cat. When Red is there, Mary leans over and smiles, and the two connection in an almost tangible way.

Mary loves historical novels, I will bring her some.

Posted in General

Therapy Work: Connie

By: Jon Katz
Connie And Mary

Connie And Mary

They took Thanksgiving and turned it into a discount shopping festival, and they've  taken the presidency and turned it into a political kind of Super Bowl. I needed to get away from the anger and the fear, so Red and I went to an assisted care facility nearby to do our therapy work, there is nothing more cleansing, healing or affirming.

Lots of people tell me their dogs would make great therapy dogs, and maybe that is so, but it takes very precise training and a very special dog to do what Red does, I have a never had as natural a therapy dog as Red. He was born to do this work.

We knocked on Connie's door and asked if she wanted to see Red – we have seen her every week these past few weeks – and she said "yes!" loudly through the door, she was asleep in her chair, an oxygen air pump attached to her nostrils so she can breathe easily.

Red wove  his way through the walker and tubes and pipes and put his head forward, Connie grabbed it in her hands and repeated again and again, "what a good boy," what a beautiful boy.

People ask me again and again how you train a therapy don't, and in a sense, you can't. I reinforce Red when he looks at a patient, and show him that the people are the work, and he takes it pretty much from there. My commands are "go up," which is go to the patient, "stay there," which means don't move, and "get close," a sign for him to press against the person we are visiting.

I discourage people from talking to me, as I need to pay attention to Red, he gets many cues from me, my commands, hands and eyes. I am always looking at the person, he follows my gaze. If he looks at me, which he sometimes does, I look away and am silent. I might frown or shake my head.

This kind of work – and especially hospice and dementia work – can be so unpredictable. People can trip over tubes and wires, fall out of chairs, shout out in pain or confusion. We've had cats pop up from under beds shrieking, an oxygen tank blow open with a huge bang (this was several years ago), an elderly man confuse my dog with a squirrel and try to beat him over the head. People make sudden movements, strange sounds.

My rule is zero mistakes. So far, I've never been involved in one, I mean to keep it that way. The last thing these people need is to be frightened or harmed by a dog. Connie is now very much attached to Red, we know her schedule, bring her books, sometimes flowers, talk to her when she can.

I could feel the tension and confusion in the country, it was in the air, and so Red and I had the sweetest couple of hours imaginable, creating good and simple people at the edge of life who were so happy to see us. Perspective is a great healer.

Posted in General

Fate And Her Spirit. Should She Go Away For Training?

By: Jon Katz
Fate And Her Spirit

Fate And Her Spirit

Karen Thompson, the wonderful friend and accomplished border collie breeder  of amazing dogs – she brought Red and Fate to us – called last night, she suggested that I consider sending Fate to an experienced border collie trainer for 30 days to see if she could develop her herding eye.

It was an interesting suggestion, and Maria and I talked about it at some length last night. We both have enormous respect for Karen, and gratitude also. You cannot get better dogs than these two. As many of you know, when we originally got Fate, we never planned for her to work sheep, she was going to be Maria's dog.

That, essentially, is what has happened, although it was not a straight line.

After months of working in the Pole Barn, walking up to the sheep, encouraging her to use her eye, I decided this wasn't really Fate's calling in life. She and her siblings are all descended from great herding lines in Wales and all have great eye. Karen suggested the problem was that Fate had been permitted to run freely too much around the sheep, and that had become her habit.

I don't know anyone more experienced about working dogs than Karen, and I accept her evaluation. I told her I didn't see any evidence – ever – that Fate was keen  to challenge the sheep and force them to respect her. But it would well be that I just misread her.

I should say I have always been controversial in the border collie community, my training ideas are very personal and idiosyncratic and have sent many of the border collie purists up a tree over the years. There are entire websites still devoted to railing on about me.

But I have had wonderful dogs and trained them well and have worked with dogs and sheep now for 15 years. I would never claim to be a professional herding trainer, and we've done well with the sheep,  but I can claim to have been very happy with my dogs and still am. Every border I have owned has had sheep in their back yard for just about every day of their life, woods to run it, people to be with, all kinds of good work to do. I am quite proud of that.

Red is the most accomplished and professional working dog I have ever seen, and I could never train a dog like that by myself to be as poised and intuitive and responsive as he is.  He makes training look easy, but it is not easy. And border collies are definitely not for everyone. But they are for me.

I also accept that I am older (we do all get older), our training skills change. I  can't move as quickly as I could when I trained Rose or Izzy. That matters when it comes to training border collies. I was thinking i might want to get an older dog so Red could retire and Fate could be Fate.

I've trained four border collies and never had that issue before, but that doesn't mean Karen is wrong.  I distinctly remember the moment when I felt Fate was signalling to me that she wasn't Red, and didn't want to be aggressive with the sheep. It seemed very clear to me, and still does. How does one just if that is correct or not? I really can't, I just have to follow my instincts.

Like Fate, I have never really been attached to the conventional wisdoms and dictums of other people. Like Beavis &Butthead, I find my own way, because I am stupid, I am free. Because I don't know what I am supposed to think, I am sometimes able to think. I would never make it on the left or the right. I actually like to think.

The irony is that Fate has become exactly the dog we hoped she would be when we got her – a loving, high-spirited, charismatic and much-loved family dog. She is Maria's dog essentially, as Red is mine. She is astonishingly intelligent, loving and fun.

Her life is  very much in balance – she is with people all day, she has work to do, good exercise, is thoroughly socialized, rides around with us, spends her days with Maria, giving shape and support to the artist's life. If she went away for 30 days, would she be the same dog when she returned?

We don't want a different dog.

For Maria, the idea seemed a bit like being sent to a military academy for being weird. Perhaps I should be the one sent away for training for 30 days. Might be easier all around.

Curiously, Fate bonded with Maria, who did not bring her to sheep, and not to me, who did. She and Maria are inseparable, Fate spends all day with Maria in her studio, walking in the woods, riding around town, visiting her pals in local stores (biscuits everywhere), and hanging out in the back yard with Red.

She loves to come with us when we work the sheep, and yes, she sure does love to run around them, get her exercise, and have a blast. It has become her habit, but she will lie down instantly, remain still for long periods of time, she just loves to be a part of things.

I want to talk more to Karen about it, but Maria clearly does not with to part with Fate for a month, and doesn't care if she herds sheep or not. She doesn't want a single thing about her to change. I feel the same way. When Red was lame and injured, I thought his working time was short, but thanks to his laser and other treatments, he has come roaring back and is able to run and work just the way he did before.

I was struck at the last Open House to see that people were just as excited to see Fate running around the sheep as they were to see Red work them in such a professional a way.

Karen and I both think he is good working for the foreseeable future. It makes perfect sense to send a working dog off to a professional trainer to learn how to herd sheep well – I am not nearly as accomplished as the professional trainers – but I agree with Maria, I don't see sending Fate off to be trained.

Karen and I will talk about it some more, she knows her stuff and I want to listen to her carefully. I also acknowledge that Fate is not my dog, and it is not my decision to make. It will have to be Maria's. And it makes absolutely no difference to her if Fate challenges sheep and gives them the eye or not.

Despite the twists and turns, we got the dog we want, and just like us, she is a non-conformist who has her own strange and wonderful way of doing things. She fits us like a glove. For all the twists and turns, we got the dog we wanted.

I love training my dogs, I consider it a spiritual experience, not an exercise in obedience. Training border collies to work with sheep is one of the most complex and challenging training experiences I know of. Training them to love you and live with you and have important work to do isn't simple either, but it is a lot simpler.

The voice I keep hearing in my head is "Let Fate Be Fate."


Posted in General

On Sale This Week: Bedlam Farm Yarn

By: Jon Katz
Bedlam Farm Yarn

Bedlam Farm Yarn: from left Socks, Suzy, Liam

This week, Maria is putting her skeins (and roving) of yarn from the Bedlam Farm sheep on sale, that will be posted on her website.

The wool pictured above is, from left, Socks, Suzy, Liam. This month's October Open House has taken a decidedly fiber turn – spinners will be making gloves and scarves from our wool and people can watch. The new sheep, the four Romney's, will be sheared, Ken Norman will be trimming the hooves of Lulu, Fanny, and Chloe.

Shearing the sheep, collecting and skirting the wool has become one of our favorite rituals at the farm.  And people love the yarn. This year, the skeins are beautiful. Maria will offer them for sale this week –  they are each $25 plus shipping – and if any remain, they will be sold at the Open House.

We can't wait to see the Romney wool shorn at the Open House, if it's in good shape, that will be sold early in 2017.

The theme of the Open House is art and rural life, Maria is selling her quilts, potholders, hanging pieces and scarves in her Schoolhouse Studio, and a half-dozen other artists (Carol Law Conklin will be doing a batik demo) will be selling their distinctive and affordable art, I'll be talking,  doing sheepherding demos, people can meet the donkeys and see Fate and Red work.

Chloe will gladly receive some carrots.

Ed Gulley is planning to bring a dairy cow to demonstrate milking. Poets will be reading from their works. I'll be talking about my next book, "Talking To Animals," and Maria will be talking about her forthcoming trip to India.

Saturday-Sunday, October 8-9, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. No dogs please. We'll be asking for a voluntary $5 donation to help defray the costs of hosting the Open House.

Posted in General
25 September 2016

Trees And Debates: What Can We Learn From Either?

By: Jon Katz
Learning From Trees

Learning From Trees

Tomorrow, as 100 million fellow citizens prepare to watch what we still insist on calling a debate, I am going to get up early and read more of  Peter Wohllenbehn's wondrous new book The Hidden Life Of Trees, a runaway bestseller in Europe, just published here.

It seems strange to say it, but I think I can learn much more from trees that I can learn for the angry and fearful spectacle we call politics. I am not sure there is anything there for me, but I know there is much I can learn from the trees, I am already learning from them.

(A debate is an argument between individuals, says the dictionary. "More important," says, "it is an essential tool for developing and maintaining democracy and open societies. More than a mere verbal or performance skill, debate embodies the ideals of reasoned argument, tolerance for divergent points of view and rigorous self-examination.")

I think I have missed the ideals of reasoned argument, tolerance for other points of view, and rigorous self-examination.

Is that really what so many of us will be watching tonight, a debate? I think there is more reason and tolerance in trees than in our political system. How strange for me to be equating these two seemingly different things. The truth is one will upset me, the other inspire me.

The biggest surprise for me in this wonderful book about trees, written by scientist and life-long tree scholar Wohllenbehn, is how social trees are, how much they care for one another, talk to one another, form social networks with each other. The trees in a forest live much longer than human beings, are infinitely more patient.

They take care of each other, sometimes going so far as to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it was cut down or fallen, they feed it sugar and other nutrients to keep it alive. A tree's most important means of staying connected to other trees, says Wohllenbehn, is a "wood wide web" of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of information and nourishment.

Trees need each other, it takes a forest to create a micro-climate suitable for tree growth and sustenance. Isolated trees have much shorter lives than trees connected together in the forests.

The book, said one reviewer, is a wonderland and this is accurate. But reading it, I was awakened to the  shock of understanding that trees are far superior to us in almost every way other than violence and anger and destructiveness. They are wise in the ways of the earth, sensitive to the environment and to one another. Trees leave room for other trees to share sunlight and rain, they warn one another of ravaging insects, and try to prepare for harsh winters or droughts.

Could it really be that trees are so far ahead of human beings when i comes to recognizing the urgency of climate change, and the bleeding and suffering of Mother Earth? Trees do not belittle and assault one another in a struggle for leadership, they share resources, help one another, live peacefully and accept their astonishing reality.

I am open to trees, and to learning from them, something I cannot imagine having said a few years ago, or felt. A women from San Francisco e-mailed me this morning to thank me for writing about the trees, she said she has been loving them and learning from them for some years (as has Maria). I guess we are different, she said.

I guess so. On this day, I will think about how much we can learn from trees, and how evolved and sensitive and caring they are.  I keep wondering how we can be more like them, instead of simply chopping them down when we need something from them.

"Every day in the forest was a discovery for me," wrote Wohllenbehn. "This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines."

Reading this, I was wondering: if we realize that human beings experience pain and have memories and that human parents live together with their children, then perhaps we will no longer chop one another down and disrupt other's lives with large machines.

This, to me, is the great irony of the environmental movement, struggling to get away from the edges of public consciousness. If we can't stop doing it to each other,  how will we ever stop doing it us? I doubt that will come up tonight in the great "debate."

Posted in General