Dutchess County, New York in Early Spring

In late March in this part of New York, the landscape is painted entirely in shades of tan and gray and brown.  The roads still crackle with sand and fallen sticks.  Some lawns have a hint of green, and the limbs of some shrubs are beginning to bud out.  Piles of stale snow, left in out-of-the-way corners here and there, remind the visitor that it is not really warm yet, and it might just storm one more time. 

My oldest son and I took a walk in woods before he had to rush off for class. We saw a pair of old yellow labs out there, enjoying a not-too-cold day outdoors. One dog was still very outgoing, and walked with us for a few yards before his distracted owner interrupted her phone conversation to call her dog back to her.  The other dog was past the point of saying hello to strangers, and was trotting along stiffly and pleasantly, going about his doggy business with both the focus and the fog that is an elderly dog.  Old dogs sometimes seem propelled by a drive to get somewhere very important, and all the while have a completely blank and lost expression.  Being walked has become a reflex. Knowing the destination has become superfluous.

Just over two years ago, on March 7, 2009, our old dog Wheatie had his last day. He was 14. He had been having a hard time getting up and lying down and going up stairs and coming down stairs. He was no longer housebroken. I think a lot of other people would have put him down a long time before that day, but he still enjoyed a lot of things in his life, like walks, treats, and being the boss of Captain. March 6, he had not eaten his breakfast and he fell violently down the stairs and I suddenly knew it was time. Otto and I took him to the vet the next afternoon. Even the vet cried; she had known him his whole life.

He came to us as a puppy, the last to go from his litter, because he was the runt. Wheatie had one eye that maybe did not quite line up when he looked at you. One eye seemed to focus on the side of your head, or maybe something behind you. I did not ever believe he would have saved me heroically from an attacking bear or purse-snatcher, but he was sweet.  When you filled the bathtub with warm water for the kids to take a bath, he would always get it in as if it were for him.  Happy, easy, and not particularly bright or energetic, Wheatie was a very good family dog.

Having pets connects us to the simplest pleasures: a walk, dinner, a drink, a warm spot to nap in, being petted. Losing them reminds us that none of us get to be alive for very long. Each of us, in fact, is marching along, superfluous to the destination.

Just Fine: A Pluto Story

Dogs that bolt down their food or eat things that are not food are at risk for medical emergencies. Every time we found another stash of Halloween candy had gone missing we worried.
Late one night, right after Thanksgiving, Pluto came and found me just as I finished putting the kids to bed. He had a distressed look on his face, and his tail was tucked way in, under his haunches, and he retched a bit. 
I showed him to my husband (who had exactly as little experience with dogs as I had), and he said, “oh, he’ll be fine. He’s a dog.”
You know how sometimes, when you can’t make up your mind about something, you flip a coin? And when you get heads, you realize that’s the wrong choice and you go with the other choice? Hearing my well-meaning husband say he’d be fine made me suspect he would not be fine.
I called the emergency vet.
I described his expression, his tail, his unsuccessful efforts to vomit, and I further noticed that his belly was rock-hard and distended. The vet tech on the phone said, “Well, it’s a holiday weekend, and we’re packed with sick animals and emergencies.”  Then, she added emphatically, “you better bring him in RIGHT NOW.”
So while my husband sat in the quiet house with the kids asleep, I rushed Pluto to the emergency vet. It was pouring rain. It was crowded in the waiting room. They whisked him into an examination room and x-rayed him.
The x-ray revealed that his stomach was huge–as big or bigger than a basketball. The vet went into lecture-mode. “Well, what you have here is a gastric torsion. You see this faint outline. That’s his stomach. His belly is bloated and his digestive track has twisted shut on both ends. Nothing’s going in and nothing’s going out. A dog can die a lot of different ways from this: stroke, gangrene, heart attack. Fortunately, we have much better anesthesia now, and we don’t lose so many dogs. Ten years ago your dog would definitely die. Today we can do a belly surgery on him and we’ve got a 70% chance he’s gonna be just fine.”
I left the dog and drove home in the dark in the rain. I had an estimate for the cost of the surgery which I had okayed without reading. In my mind, that 70% chance of being just fine was a 30% chance that he was gonna be dead tomorrow, and I was gonna have to explain to my small children what happened to Pluto in the night.
Exhausted, we tried to wait up for the call, but it woke us anyway. Pluto survived the surgery just fine, as promised. We could pick him up and move him to the local vet on Monday.
Pluto came home a few days after that, emaciated and half-shaved, with a ten inch line of metal staples running along the middle of his gut. He had a cone on his head and a very dull look in his eye. We took him home and put him in his kennel, which we moved to a spot where we could keep an eye on him.
A couple more days passed. Pluto was on a very restricted diet of brown rice and chicken in very, very small quantities. He seemed very sad and very uncomfortable at all times. After dropping the boys at pre-school, I let him loose in the house without his cone. He fell asleep on the couch in his usual spot on the left.
When it was time to pick up from pre-school, I knew I’d be gone only 15 or 20 minutes. The dog looked very quiet and comfortable for the first time since he was home. I left him where he was.
When I got home with the boys, Pluto was lying at the other end of the couch, with his head up. I would swear to this day that he didn’t want to make eye-contact with me. Soon I found the source of his detectable shame. But I didn’t know what it was at first: about two inches long, black, and with four or five fingers, like a dried monkey paw. It lay there on the kitchen floor. At first I thought it was a very strange potty accident. I crouched to look at it, not really wanting to touch it. It was very dry. I got a paper towel and picked it up. It was the connecting end of an entire bunch of bananas. It was all that was left of five bananas. While I was gone, the dog had eaten five bananas, skins and all. Special diet, small portions, ten inches of staples in his belly, a $1200 surgery, and he was gonna kill himself stealing bananas.
I got the vet tech on the phone. “Pluto ate an entire bunch of bananas.” While I spoke I took a look at  him, and the spark was back in his eye. He was sitting up. “Eh,” she said. “Bananas are pretty benign. I think it’ll be ok.”
She was right. From that moment forward, he was on the mend. I think all he needed, maybe, was some bananas.

A Pluto Story: Corn on the Cob, and Other Eating Disasters

Pluto story #4 was supposed to cover all of the most disgusting things Pluto did. I realize in retrospect that there were many other disgusting things he did, and I share some more of them here.

Pluto bolted his food. We tried kibble, which he seemed to suck into his mouth and swallow in four chews. We tried canned food, which we carefully spread to the edges of his dish, and he seemed to suck it into his mouth and swallow in one motion. In the end, we found that adding hot water to his food made him slow down and savor it in six or eight mouthfuls.
He willingly ate any food, and even things that seemed like food, like PlayDo, modeling clay, crayons, and scented soap. Often, we would not discover that he’d eaten something until it came out the other end. Crayons and modeling clay pass through a dog with color and texture intact. Expensive scented soap turns into a massive, grey mucous-covered substance that makes me ill to think about.
Pluto loved beer, and barked when beer was opened until he was given a small amount in his dish. He also loved broccoli, so much so that he clamored for the water the broccoli was cooked in—what we called broccoli water. Broccoli water was usually still hot, and would elicit growling sounds from the dog, head down in a big saucepan. You could amplify the sound, and vary the pitch by poking him in the ribs while he drank it. Our current Vizslas do not understand why we sometimes absent-mindedly offer them the pot of broccoli water.
Once, at the end of a big family meal, my brother asked me whether he could give Pluto the ear of corn left over from his young daughter’s nibbling.  I had a charming mental image of a dog quietly gnawing the ear while he steadied it between the paws. I thought it was a great idea. Sure! Give Pluto the ear of corn. Pluto swallowed it in two or three bites.
It took a few days, but the corn cobs needed to be barfed up, since they would not break down and come out the normal route.

A Pluto Story: Vizslas

I had cats and other pets growing up, but never a dog.  In 1992 my husband and I were living in the Bay Area, and went to a big dog show at the Cow Palace. Walking around with our son in a baby-backpack, we saw a lot of breeds we had never even heard of before, including a Hungarian breed, the Vizsla. My husband was born in Hungary, and escaped from the communist regime in Hungary with his family when he was a small child. The privilege of owning a real Hungarian dog was meaningful to him, and the more we learned about Vizslas the more interested we became.

We were told that the Vizsla is a breed dating back to the 9th century. A gentleman’s walking and shooting dog, the Vizsla may have been originally developed by the Magyars to hunt with falcons. The dog is a pointer/retriever, capable of finding prey birds, pointing, flushing the birds on command, and retrieving the bird after it is knocked from the sky by a falcon. If you ever wonder what inventive Hungarians are like, think about that Magyar, who contrived to train two animals to do most of the hard work of hunting.
Vizslas were also always intended to be family companions, as well, and I have not met one yet who is not a couch-potato in the home.
After the second World War, because of their associations with wealthy landowners, the breed was almost completely wiped out by the communists in Hungary. The story I read said that eleven purebred Vizslas were rescued by a Canadian breeder who smuggled them out of Hungary in the early 1950s to reestablished the breed abroad.  Today the AKC standard says that the dog should be “A natural hunter endowed with a good nose and above-average ability to take training. Lively, gentle-mannered, demonstrably affectionate and sensitive though fearless with a well-developed protective instinct. Shyness, timidity or nervousness should be penalized.”  I believe that this means those who make the best Vizslas do so by trying to meet this standard. I have not met Vizslas “bred for hunting” with the same outgoing, positive nature as those “bred for show.”
That having been said, I know that there are an awful lot of homeless pets in the world, and would encourage anyone interested in a dog or cat to consider going to find an adoptable companion languishing in a shelter. Both dogs and cats know when they’ve been given a second (or third) chance.

A Pluto Story: Little Boys

Now you might think that a strong and energetic dog like Pluto would be way too much for a family with small children. In many ways, you would be right in thinking it. When he was a puppy, Pluto was so hard to control or contain, he was sometimes tied by his leash to the leg of the sofa when he was indoors. Even then, he was strong enough to move the couch across the floor if anything interesting happened.

As dog owners, we were newbies, having never really had a dog of our own before. Neither of us had any idea that Pluto was more rambunctious than a typical puppy, and so we simply dealt with him as best we could until he grew up. Many people say that Vizslas never grow up, but it has been our experience (now that we have had four different individuals) that a kind of ripening occurs between the age of 2 and 3 years.  Pluto settled into his adulthood as we were settling in to our home in Seattle.
Even as an adult, it took about 45 minutes of solid ball-throwing (with a Chuck-It) to get Pluto slightly tired. It was up to us to pay attention to the condition of his feet, for he was willing to run on pavement until his feet were bleeding.   Once, I was throwing a ball for him in the heavily wooded park in my neighborhood, and he hit a huge tree running full speed. He hit it so hard the moss stained his red-brown hair green. It would not wash off either.
Powerful and tireless, Pluto probably sounds like he would be an inappropriate choice for a family with small boys. What our experience was, though, that he was more than willing to wear costumes, endure ear and eye inspections, hide in forts, and submit to being sat on or rolled on. When our toddler middle son was starting to eat solid food, he rapidly moved on to feeding himself, and regularly shared with Pluto.  I have a vivid memory of Max in his high chair, plunging his tiny spoon-clenched fist into a bowl of strained peas, raising it to his face and sucking it off, and then extending his arm to Pluto, for cleaning. 
If Max and his brothers say they were raised in part by Vizslas, it would be true.

A Pluto Story: Panic!

Pluto soon learned how to swim without splashing, and how to fetch objects from the water. He often would bound into bodies of water without waiting for anyone to give him permission or throw him a ball.  He never had the chance to experience water that was anything more that really cold, living in the Pacific Northwest, but it never seemed to bother him. He swam in the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon Coast, emerging bright red, covered in sand and shivering, every hair on his body standing on end. He swam in glacial lakes at the top of hiking trails when we’d stop for lunch. He swam in the Puget Sound in winter.

More than once he encountered a floating log in the water. As much as he enjoyed fetching sticks and balls, and hauling large tree limbs on land, a floating branch in the water was one thing he found frightening. More than once he got stuck in the water, frantically trying to get past the log that was between him and the shore.
He also had this reaction to coming down a ladder. Now, you might wonder why a dog would ever need to come down a ladder. Pluto loved to climb ladders, and also to slide down slides. He would entertain himself on our play-set if you would just stand and watch him, climbing clumsily up the ladder and galloping down the slide.  There was a slide on one side of the play-set, and a fort on the other. More than once he followed the kids up the ladder to the fort, and found himself unable to jump or climb down. He would begin to shake and bark in a very frightened voice.
Our solution was to cover the ladder with a tarp long enough for Pluto to attempt to slide down it. Typically, the tarp would go through the space between the rungs of the ladder as soon as he put weight on his paws, but he could stumble down in a fairly controlled fashion this way.  Once, he followed our contractor up a ladder onto the roof of the garage, and the very understanding and heroic contractor carried him down.

A Pluto Story: Water

Pluto was an extremely energetic dog, and required a lot of exercise.  He was passionate about fetching a ball (or any other dog’s ball), and about swimming.  Not long after we moved to Seattle, we took him to a dog park for the first time. Pluto ran and leaped and barked.  We threw the ball for him for a while, but found he was easily distracted with so many people and dogs to meet.

We made our way to the river, which is accessed from the park in a series of small, steep, rocky beaches.  Pluto had never seen open water before, and immediately bounded in. This river is not particularly deep, but can be fast moving, especially in the spring. In his excitement, he found himself in moving water over his head. From shore, I could almost see his instincts kick in. His front paws began to paddle rhythmically, and soon his expression changed from panic to real pleasure. Almost immediately he grew confident, and began thrusting his front legs out of the water in huge, circular strokes, generating a lot of splash and not really moving him in any direction very fast.
A man standing nearby with his own dog in the water turned to me. “Is that your dog?” he asked.
I was laughing so hard I could barely answer him.  He began to laugh, too. Another passing dog owner joined us, and we all stood, strangers on a river bank, laughing at the most ridiculous dog-paddle any of us had ever seen.