Archive for July, 2012

If you have ever played Alchemy, you’ll understand when I say I am proposing a new combination of elements.  Seriously.  Dog plus Vacuum really does equal Death, or very nearly death.  Let me explain:

I have an eleven month old pit bull named Grimm.  Grimm likes to chew on things (see The Shoes That Were Eaten To Pieces).  A few months ago, he chewed the vacuum cleaner’s cord in two.  All I can say is he was very lucky the cord wasn’t plugged in, although I will admit a little part of me kinda wished it was.  One big shock may have taught the big jerk a lesson.  After much cursing, and I’ll admit, a few threats to make a trip to the local animal shelter, I decided that I could probably wire it back together.  After all, I’d seen my dad splice wires together and it didn’t look too hard.

To do this, I needed a few things:  a pair of pliers and some electrical tape.  I stripped down the outer cord and it’s insulation until just the copper wire was exposed on both pieces.  I then twisted the two ends of copper together until they were snug and wouldn’t budge when tugged on.  Next, I covered the whole exposed part of the cord with electrical tape and made sure no wires were poking out.  I then crossed my fingers, plugged the cord in, and turned on the vacuum.  Eureka!!  It started fine, no smoke or fire broke out, I didn’t electrocute anybody and I congratulated myself for a job well done and for not having to spend another hundred bucks on a new vacuum cleaner.  Fast forward to today…

So, I was doing some cleaning, and it was time to vacuum the floor.  I have a tile floor, but vacuuming is much easier than sweeping.  Anyways, I started vacuuming and then, nothing.  The vacuum stopped working.  There was some tension on the line and I thought maybe it had come unplugged, but nope. Grimm was standing on the cord and my forward motion, along with his heavy self planted firmly on the cord, caused my beautifully spliced wires to come apart, leaving the tape on the part of the cord that was still plugged in.  Of course, I started cursing–not this again!  And caused by the same dog!  Grrrr…..definitely going to the shelter.

In my anger, I grabbed the part of the cord with the tape on it and angrily pulled the tape off, exposing the copper wires (most of you can see where this is going).  I then inadvertently touched the live wire to my forearm on the way to unplug it.  Wowzer!  I jumped about three feet in the air and dropped the wire and it started making zapping noises and sparks.  With a lovely metallic taste in my mouth, I unplugged the cord.  More cursing ensued.  I looked at Grimm–he was just calmly sitting, watching me as I ranted.  I swear he looked a little disappointed that, say, my hair hadn’t caught on fire or my arm wasn’t blackened.  His beady little eyes looked calculating.  Maybe I should rename him Grim Reaper.

Or maybe I should change my equation to read:

Me + Electricity = Stupid

Needless to say, I’m getting a new vacuum cleaner.

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I’m beginning to suspect Zella may be a superhero.  How would I know, you ask?  Well, honestly, I don’t.  But she’s definitely up to something, and a few puzzling bits are starting to make sense.

The Origin Story

All good superheroes have great origin stories–either they were traumatized by witnessing or being struck by violence and are now hell-bent on fixing the world, were given powers by something/someone that they really didn’t want or ask for and are hell-bent on using them for good, or they created something that changed/enhanced them and now are hell-bent on proving their value to mankind.  Zella’s origins fall mostly in the first category, but she could be slightly influenced by the second as well.   As far as I know, she hasn’t created or invented anything that is self-enhancing…yet.  Here’s her story, told through her point of view:

I really don’t remember much of my mother, or my siblings for that matter.  My first memories really are of dirt and cold.  I was taken from my mother when I was only four and a half weeks old.  My other siblings and I were tossed into a cardboard box and driven to the local Wal-Mart where we sat and waited.  Apparently, you really can get anything at Wal-Mart, even a puppy.  A “For Sale” sign was placed on the box and lots of people stopped to look at us, pet us, talk to us, pick us up by our scruff, drop us back in the box.  I remember my stomach grumbled and I felt bloated.

 “What kind of dogs?”, people would ask.  “American Pit Bull Terriers”, was the reply, “the blue nose kind.”  What the hell does my nose have to do with anything?  All I knew was that it was cold–was that why it was blue?

“Aren’t those dogs used for fighting?”

“Some are.  You buy this dog, you can use it for whatever you want.  They come from good lines.”

Whatever that means.  This guy was selling them a line, a line of bullshit.  How would he know?  He just threw a couple of bullish dogs together and nine weeks later got us.  He only used us to line his pockets.

After a while of being poked at and almost dropped by a couple of kids, a young girl came by.  She was unsure, but I wiggled anyways, like we all had been doing.  We were trying anything at that point to get out of the cardboard and into warm arms.  She was totally mesmerized by my blue eyes.  At that age, most puppies have blue eyes anyways, but mine were especially bright and that’s what saved me.

She wasn’t ready, though.  Not for a puppy and especially not a pit bull puppy.  I didn’t know at that time about the stigma associated with my breed.  I didn’t know I was supposed to be a monster, driven by uncontrolled genes to seek and destroy any living thing.  She didn’t believe this, either, but she just wasn’t ready to take on the challenge of a puppy.  She had me all of twenty four hours before she freaked and asked her parents, “What do I do–I’ve made a mistake.”

Lucky for me, her dad was a veterinarian.  He had her drive me up to his clinic so he could look at me and see what to do next.  I arrived in a laundry basket wearing the new purple cat collar she bought me–I was too little for a proper dog one.  I was poked with a sharp needle–“to protect me from diseases”, I heard.  I was washed and probed rectally–more torture for a young dog, but these were done to help, not hurt.  The reason for my bellyaches was determined from that probing–I was a sac of parasites.  A lady fed me some watered down wet food and gave me some horrible yellow liquid and I was left in a kennel overnight.  That night, in the darkness, I howled and cried for my family.  My belly rumbled and I had explosive diarrhea, diarrhea with horrors in it–worms as long as me were dying and there I was, rolling with them in my own diarrhea, wishing I was dying, too.

The next day, the lady who fed me and washed me the day before washed me again.  She looked a little angry, but I could tell it wasn’t at me.  It was at the injustice I had been served in my short life.  She vowed then and there to protect me, to teach me, to turn my life around.  She told the veterinarian that I was now hers, and he secretly was happy I was no longer his problem.  She took me to her house where a new, real family greeted me.  I was home.

I know what I am, where I come from, but I am not destined to go down that line.  I will use my daring, my tenacity, my strong-will that was bred into me by humans to show the world what I can do…I am not a blood thirsty monster.  I am a fighter, but I fight against stereotypes and preconceived notions.  I will change your perspective of me, even if it takes all my life.

Proof of Extraordinary Powers–Flight

The next thing on the superhero list:  superpowers.  Zella has a few, but I know you won’t believe me if I just tell you about them, so I’ll show them to you.  Above is proof that she can fly, but she has other abilities, too.

Zella demonstrates another of her super-abilities: hiding in plain sight.

Zella demonstrates psychometry, the ability to communicate with inanimate objects.

It is also very important for a superhero to have two things:

1) sidekicks and/or good familial support and…


Her doggy brothers are always there for her.

Family knows how to get rid of your sorrows.

2) …a secret identity.

Squirreldog to the rescue! Ok, well, looks like she’s still working on that. Maybe she could just wear a pair of glasses?

The last thing one needs to be a superhero is an arch nemesis.  This really is the only piece of the puzzle that is missing.  You see, Zella doesn’t even have an ordinary, run-of-the-mill enemy.  Maybe the vacuum cleaner counts…no, not really.  She just sort of looks at it funny.  The lawn mower–that’s her arch enemy.  Whenever I go to start it, she barks at it like crazy until the engine turns over.  Then she looks at me smugly, and I swear she smiles, and her eyes say, “I told it, didn’t I?”.

Zella’s only real enemy is ignorance.  Yes, she’s a pit bull; no, she’s not going to eat your child and wreak havoc on the town.  Even for all her bad starts in life, she has proven to be a remarkable dog.  I have trained and socialized her from day one, and each day is another day for her to hone her skills.  I do not let her roam or place her in any compromising situations.  I know that training can only get you so far and that genetics do play a role.  Too many pit bull owners feel they can love aggression out of their dogs, and that is just not true.  We need to respect both nature and nurture.  Zella may not be a true superhero, but I need to be hers–together we can help to change perceptions.

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“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”

–Martin Buber

Have you ever truly looked at your dog’s eyes?  Gotten lost in all the colors and patterns, the striations and lines?  For that matter, have you really ever looked at your own eye?  They aren’t just brown or amber or green or blue; a symphony of color exists in the iris.  In people, there have been studies that suggest eyes really are the window to the soul–certain patterns in the iris seem to be linked to certain personality traits.  To my knowledge, no one has tested this theory in canines.  There have been, however, studies on cognition and perception in dogs by testing their ability to track our eye movements and read our intent.  Dogs, they have found, are very good at following our gazes, though some breeds and individuals are better at it than others.

Of all my current dogs, Zella makes the best eye contact.  She will watch my face very closely and look where I look, especially when she wants my help in finding a frisbee.  She will follow my gaze and go in that direction, periodically stopping to look back at me to follow my line of sight again until she finds it.  Grimm “looks” for frisbees by snuffling around with his nose or he follows Zella’s lead–he doesn’t watch my eyes the way Zella does.  When Zella is unsure of which toy to bring me to play with, she comes up to me, whines, and watches my eyes closely.  When I look at the toy I want her to bring to me, she will return with the correct one.  Pointing at the toy doesn’t work as well with her, unless I look at it also.  Charley and Zella will make eye contact with me, look at the back door, then make eye contact again when they want to go outside.  I am still waiting for Grimm to learn some of these behaviors from them.  He pretty much just gallops along wherever they go. Whereas Charley and Zella have seemingly mastered communication using eye contact, Grimm has barely scratched the surface.   All of my dogs know the “Watch Me” command, which is useful for getting their attention and keeping them distracted from trouble, but young Grimm has the attention span of a fly.

It goes both ways–we can learn a lot about a dog by looking at their eyes, too.  A “whale eye” or dilated pupils in a dog can signal fear whereas squinted eyes can relay excitement or appeasement.  Most people at some point have seen the “hard eye” of an aggressive dog or a dog that means business.  For some dogs, making eye contact with a human can be considered a threat.  Some dogs naturally follow a human gaze, others have to be taught.  Learning how to communicate with your canine companion can be challenging–I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me and Grimm.  It’s hard enough at times to communicate with other Homo sapiens; I’m always amazed that we humans do as well as we do with Canis lupus familiaris.

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Occasionally I take all three dogs with me to work, although most days I only bring two out of the three.  The other day, however, I brought all of them.   Charley was happy as a clam, but Grimm and Zella were bored and clearly not amused.

Charley, Grimm and Zella kenneled in a dog run while at work with me.

Somehow, when I took the picture, Charley’s white hairs on his head formed an almost perfect halo.  Zella’s little reddish-pink ears seemed to resemble horns.  Now when I look at the picture, all I can think about is Grimm being pulled in two directions (a canine Doctor Faustus, if you will):  Charley, on his right, imploring him to be righteous and behave;  Zella, on his left, tempting him to join her in impish delights.  What’s a dog to do?

I will say, all three are actually fairly well behaved when at work, although Zella sometimes gets a little antsy and starts making duck/monkey noises.  This day they were lucky as none of them were required to do any work.  In the past, both Zella and Grimm have been called upon to donate blood to less fortunate pooches and Charley has been summoned to help with training in simple procedures.  They are paid handsomely for their efforts, so don’t think I’m taking advantage of them.  It’s only a matter of time, I fear, until they unionize.

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Charley.  Charles.  Charley-Boy.  Charz.  Charley-Bear.  Char-Char.  Charlito.  ‘Lito.  Buddy Boy.  Boo-Boo.  Munchkin.  Pumpkin-Head.  Monkey Boy.  Knucklehead.  Chuck.  My Good Boy.  My Best Boy.

These are most of the names I have called Charley over the years, and he has always been gracious enough to respond to all of them.  Nowadays, though, with his hearing mostly gone, a piercing whistle has to do.  A little over 14 years ago, he came into my life–at the time, I was in college and didn’t really need another dog, but I couldn’t refuse the emaciated, tick-riddled, partially bald, just run-over pup.  And these were just the problems you could see.  I had just started working as a veterinary technician, and I’ll never forget my boss and mentor sitting down with me and asking, “Are you sure you want this dog?  Because he’s sorta a train wreck.  We can try to fix him up, kiddo, but I make no promises.  He’s going to be a lot of work.”  Well, I was never one to back down from a challenge and I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog.

The good news was that no bones were broken, although he urinated blood for a couple of days due to trauma to his kidneys and bladder.  His fecal material was mostly insects, cricket parts mostly, but a fecal exam revealed he had basically every intestinal parasite possible.  He literally had thousands of ticks on him and was anemic, but he was a tough little trooper.

It broke my heart that this sweet little four month old pup had endured so much in his short life–the lady who brought him in (and also accidentally run him over) found him out in the middle of nowhere when she was looking at property out near Lake Travis.  She saw the pup and tried to catch him, but he hid in the woods.  When she and her real estate agent got out of their vehicle to look at the land, the pup, unbeknownst to her, crawled under the car.  When they got back in their car to leave, she felt a bump as she started forward, and realized she had just run the pup over.

Months later, it was discovered that he had a diaphragmatic hernia, basically a tear in the  muscle separating the abdomen from the thorax.  His intestines were literally in his chest and, on ultrasound, you could actually see intestines around his heart.  Because of this organ movement, his liver had been strangulated and, to compensate, his body had formed multiple external liver shunts.  Unfortunately, these shunts did not provide adequate blood flow to the liver, so his liver was stressed, too.  One whole student loan went to pay the surgical specialist to repair the hernia–the shunts were inoperable, but eventually, once all his organs were back in place, it ended up correcting itself.

Charley became my do-anything-and-everything dog–a certified therapy dog, an enthusiastic disc dog, and an excellent agility dog.  He would go with my boss to area schools when he talked to students about how to become a veterinarian.  He went with me to visit residents at nursing homes until that became too much for me to handle.  He was a demo dog at dog training events and a teaching dog for new technicians to learn how to perform certain procedures.  He tried herding once, and although I had seen him work cattle naturally when out horseback riding, he was not a fan of the goats  they used at the herding dog seminar.  My dog, my highly trained, performance rated, can-do-anything dog, stood in the middle of the round-pen on the long line, looked at the goats, looked at the trainer, looked at the goats again, and then took a giant dump.  So much for herding.

Over the years, Charley has been a constant friend–he teaches the new dogs the ropes and keeps the younger ones in line.  He is like a cat with nine lives–he was paralyzed on his right side for a while after he tripped over a five foot horse fence when he tried to jump it, landing on his head instead of his feet;  ehrlichia has reared its ugly head a few times because of all the ticks he had as a pup; he was bit by a snake when he stayed with my parents for a while.  He currently battles arthritis and doesn’t chase the frisbee anymore, but he still occasionally volunteers to be a demo dog at work, teaching the newbies handling and simple procedures.

Old Charley’s color has faded with age, now he’s more white and his tan points have mostly faded.  He’s gained a few pounds in retirement, he’s mostly deaf, and his vision is not as good.  He’s got lots of lumps (lipomas) and broken off teeth.  But, he’s still my good boy, my best boy.  He’s a first class snuggler and can still get in trouble with the best of them.  What a dog to share my life for the past fourteen years!  I thank the higher powers that be every day for sending that poor, miserable, unloved pup my way all those years ago.  Everyone should be so lucky.

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