Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Happy 8th Birthday, Kirby!

I can't believe our scruffy little guy is eight years old!

He's spent his life around Wirehaired Pointing Griffons and despite being 1/3 the size, I believe he thinks he is one. (He even points.) As a pup he relentlessly pestered our adult Griff, Baxter; was crushed (as we all were) when Bax passed away; then got the other end of the golden rule/dog karma when we introduced our Griff puppy, Remy, to the household a year and a half ago. Despite his diminutive size, he manages to hold his own with the big dogs. We love you, Kirby!

Monday, July 07, 2014

People and Pedigree

We have a purebred dog...Remy, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon of excellent pedigree. We also have Kirby, a little shelter dog of much less fancy and much more diverse lineage. Is one dog better than the other? No. They're just different. We mostly knew what we were in for when we brought Remy into our home. He is intelligent, athletic, obsessed with birds and is an absolute clown. He has wiry hair that doesn't shed much, never requires combing and repels burrs like teflon. He is devoted and affectionate and doesn't want to be far from his poeple. He has his own unique personality that is certainly different from our first Griff, Baxter, but he still has these characteristics that are just part of how Griffs are.

With Kirby it has been an ever-unfolding mystery. He pounces on his toys and gives them the "terrier death shake" with aplomb. He is little, but he defends our house with the ferocity of a Rottweiler. He also herds us down the beach as well as any collie and he points at birds (granted, he might have learned the latter from living with a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon most of his life). Kirby is a sort of Renaissance dog with a little Napoleon thrown in.

When it comes to genetics, I am a bit of a mutt within the broad category of Western Europeans. When my ancestors came to seek their fortunes in America (most in the 1600s and 1700s), they had unique cultural and ethnic identities. For a few generations they stayed within their cultures. But by the time my great-grandparents came along, it must have been a lot more accepted to marry outside one's community. An Irishman married a Pennsylvania Dutch German. An Englishman married a French-Canadienne. That's my mom's side. My dad's side stuck a little closer to the "British" ethnic home with marriages among English, Welsh and Scots-Irish. Mind you, my older relatives on the Scots-Irish side were certain to emphasize the "Scots" portion of Scots-Irish -- they were fierce Protestants with a disdain for Catholics. I'm not sure they even knew why, at that point, having lived in Illinois and Iowa for generations, but somehow the old rivalries managed to get carried on along with the stubborn Scottish DNA.

I don't look like I have a pedigree of any certain origin. In North Iowa I grew up with a lot of people who were pure-blood Norwegians and Swedes (think "A Prairie Home Companion: South of the Border Edition"). Many of my friends had blue eyes, blonde hair and names that ended in -son and -sen. I was fascinated by their family traditions and foods like krumkake and lefse. The closest thing we had to a family food tradition was my mother's use of herbs and garlic (French) and my father's British range of food preferences (from brown to white).

So when I got my DNA test back from, I was a little surprised to learn that despite having no known heritage suggesting Nordic ancestry, my DNA tells another story. It says I'm 12% Scandinavian. At first I thought the DNA test must be wrong. Then I got to thinking about where the Vikings landed and my Scottish and English ancestors...(and probably a few Norman ancestors as well). Somehow, that Viking blood managed to make its way through so many generations it landed in me with absolutely no discernible Scandinavian family names as far back as I can trace my family history. How many of those fierce Campbells of Scotland (my tribe of human terriers) got some of that ferocity from the Vikings who landed there? Probably more than a few.

But does DNA matter, really?  Not unless you have some sort of family gene that indicates a susceptibility to a certain disease, and even then, as the science of epigenetics is revealing, even that is not a blueprint, as you can turn on and turn off genes through your environment, your lifestyle and the food you eat, among other things. And those genes can be passed down as well. What your father or grandfather had to eat during his lifetime might have as much or more influence on whether you get diabetes or cancer than the presence of a particular gene would indicate.

In any case, the search for DNA markers that indicate ethnic heritage is an interesting line of study, I think. It's fascinating to me that someone might have, say, an Italian last name, but no measurable amount of DNA markers associated with Italian people. The family name was carried down through the fathers, but the "Italian genes" that went with it got diluted or simply not passed along somewhere in the process of marrying out to a few non-Italians down the line.

This happened with me. Another puzzle in my DNA results was the lack of Irish DNA. My great-grandfather on my mother's side came to the US from Tipperary, Ireland. This we know. We have the records. He is my most recent connection to an old country of any kind. So you'd expect that DNA to be pretty significant in me. We had my mother's DNA tested and she came out 28% Irish. According to the DNA test results, Irish people have a pretty strong set of DNA markers -- a native Irish person has a score of 95% (some others, like English, are more admixed with other ethnicities that have overrun the country at various times...(Vikings, Normans, Romans, etc.) But Irish is one of the most pure ones in terms of recognizable DNA markers. For Mom, whose grandfather came from Ireland, a DNA match of 28% seems pretty expected.

You'd think mine would then be at least 12 to 14%, right?  Nope. 3% Irish. I have more "Iberian Peninsula" (5%) and Italian (4%) than I do Irish, and I have no known heritage from either of those regions. Apparently those Scots-Irish Campbells were so stubborn, even their DNA kicked out the Irishman in my inheritance.

I don't care. I'm still wearing a green shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day, just like Grandpa told me to.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Oh the Oregano!

Last fall, after about 15 years of talking about moving to the country and looking at properties and not finding "the place," we finally purchased a little three-acre farm. We fell in love with the lay of the land and the trees and the sweet view of the Coast Range.

Like all farms around here, our little farm has a history, and part of the fun of buying the place has been piecing together that history from limited information and new discoveries. Some of that history is about the house, which is a work-in-progress that I'll discuss at another time. The real fun for me has been watching the flora and fauna popping up everywhere.

Having first looked at the place in the early fall, we had a pretty good idea of the late-summer plants and we knew there was a grape arbor and an orchard with plums, pears, apples and cherries. The previous owner, we were told, loved to garden and had planted herbs, medicinal plants and perennials around the house and yard, but all had finished their blooms by the time we saw the property and, in many cases, we weren't certain what we were looking at just from the leaves. The place had been vacant for a while, so the deliberately-planted perennials were so overgrown by the grasses, invasive weeds and other native volunteers we weren't sure what all was out there.

As the first shoots started breaking through this spring, we still weren't sure which ones to pull up and which ones to leave in place. So we just left everything in place until it bloomed for easier identification. (Now we have an epic amount of weeding to do, but I digress...)

Just figuring out the array of beautiful flowers here has been a joy. Springtime surprises like the snowball bush and bleeding hearts and late-spring peonies were gifts from nature. We've identified many of the plants now, but we still have a number of green, leafy things we haven't quite put a name on.

We've had some help. Thanks to the Oregon State plant identification folks, we found out the "uncertain" plant growing along the driveway wasn't poison hemlock but, rather, Sweet Cicely, which has delicate white spring flowers and leaves that have a lovely, subtle, fennel-like flavor when added to salads.

Most of the herbs were pretty straightforward, though, as we've grown herbs before. Lemon balm is cropping up everywhere (to the point of being too much...I prefer lemon verbena for flavor). We have a nice patch of spearmint, and I'm looking forward to making my first mojito. But, more than anything else, we have lots of oregano. We lost some of it due to some trenching through the garden that was required for electrical work on the shop/studio, but even after that, we still have lots of oregano.

This oregano is tough stuff. It seems to be the most successful plant in the yard, with the exception of wild grasses. We have deer wandering around our property daily. They browse on just about everything (including my flowers >:-\) , but they don't seem to touch the oregano.

Bugs don't seem to like it either. Other than the occasional spider, I never see little critters on the oregano and the leaves appear untouched by insects. Whereas most of the garden has been taken over by invasive plants, somehow the oregano is managing to effectively choke out the weeds. Even the bindweed vine that has twined itself around a number of oregano plants is having a hard time. It's now riddled with holes from some bug that makes it look like we've had a visit from the retired ticket-taker in Amelie. Bien sûr, Monsieur did not touch the oregano. (I still pull out the bindweed as it tries to choke everything...)

Honestly, the only natural enemies of all this oregano appear to be the dogs, who always try to run over and lift their legs on it. Needless to say, we've been steering them in other directions... (You knew I'd have to work the scruffy dogs in here somewhere, didn't you?)

Anyway... I've been using the oregano occasionally in cooking, but I've found the fresh oregano loses much of its flavor when cooked. On further research, I learned that oregano is best and most flavorful when cut just prior to flowering and air-dried. The oregano-drying experts also say it's best to cut it in the morning, just after the dew has dried and before the heat of the day has a chance to wilt it.

Of course, as if on cue, on my busiest work week, the oregano started putting out flower buds. Must act fast!

So this morning I grabbed my scissors and began my first round of oregano pruning. There is still a lot of oregano and much of it is just going to have to bloom and be decorative unless I want to go into oregano drying as a business. (Not a bad idea, actually...I might have to rethink that...)

I brought an armload of it into the house, lightly rinsed off the dirt and two spiders (yes, only two in a whole armload of oregano), gently spun away some of the water in a salad spinner and placed the stems on a kitchen towel. As I continued rinsing and spinning, my husband rounded up some string and tied the oregano into bunches and hung it from the cupboards and light fixture.

Obviously I'm going to have to find some place else to keep these hanging until they dry, but for now I'm finding the kitchen potpourri to be quite fragrant and lovely!  I suddenly have this urge for Italian food...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Renaissance Remy

My husband just couldn't resist. Remy does have that Dutch Renaissance painting look about him, doesn't he?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lampshade vs. Donut

We tried the lampshade on Remy -- he did the most amazing, backward, furniture-destructive freak-out dance I've ever seen. So we took it off and dug out his old inflatable donut we had from a puppyhood mishap. He was SO EXCITED to see the donut, he put his head into it willingly and strutted around the house like it was the mark of something special. He loves that thing so much, even though it's not big enough to prevent him from reaching his stitches, he hasn't once tried to lick them since we put it on him. Psych!

Oddly enough, our Baxter LOVED his cone and used it like antlers...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My Dog's Nuts

No, Remy is not crazy. Rather, he was an adult, intact male dog. Until today, that is. Now he's an adult, neutered male dog. TMI? Perhaps. But I thought I'd take this moment to ponder the whole neutering thing and talk about the rather interesting medical and social aspects of waiting until a dog is an adult before having him neutered.

Despite my being an advocate for spay/neuter all of my adult life, I found myself feeling ambivalent about the whole neutering thing with Remy. I think this is mostly because I hate the thought of putting my dog through any sort of medical danger or pain. And somehow it seems different than our previous dogs because Remy's 21 months old.

Historical Context: We've always dutifully neutered our pups at about six months of age. This is what the veterinarians and pretty much every social organization devoted to dog care, rescue or overpopulation prevention advises. If you neuter at six months, they say, the dog is still too young to have much going on in the way of hormones, they don't develop as many hormone-related behaviors, the wee gonads are easier to remove and your dog will be healthier and live a longer life.

All goodness, right?  Not exactly.

When we got Remy, his breeder, who is a U.C. Davis-trained veterinarian, requested that we wait until Remy was at least 16-18 months of age (full adult size) before we neutered him. Waiting even longer is better, she said. The influence of the sex hormones would help with his bone growth, which would in turn help him avoid problems like hip dysplasia and ligament tears. Apparently the sex hormones in dog puberty play a critical role in signaling the bone growth plates to stop growing. Dogs neutered before they reach their full bone growth don't get the same chemical signals and they tend to have longer legs and higher rates of joint and other musculoskeletal disorders as a result. Our first Griff, Baxter, definitely had longer legs than most Griffs I had seen in dog shows. And he suffered from lower back and hip joint pain in his senior years. Anything we could do to help prevent that in Remy was OK with us. See below* for more research on this point.

I didn't mind waiting. In fact, I thought it was an interesting opportunity to see what an adult, intact male Griff is really like. I'll be honest here -- based on what I'd heard as "common knowledge," intact male dogs are always marking in your house and riding your leg and getting into fights and other such things. They are aggressive and sometimes dangerous and it's best to prevent those behaviors before they start.

But is this really true? Or are we largely basing or societal assessment of male dogs on a few ill-behaved, poorly trained, aggressive dogs whose owners kept them intact for all the wrong reasons? After all, I don't see the dogs at Westminster tearing each other apart. And the intact cafe dogs in Paris seem to get along pretty well with each other.

What I found out:
Some intact male dogs are perfectly nice, friendly dogs who don't mark your house, don't ride your leg and don't pick fights with other dogs. Remy was one of those dogs. But often that didn't matter. See Social Observation #2 below.

Social Observation #1 (aka, What I learned from walking around with an intact male dog): There is a stigma about having an intact male dog in the U.S., particularly here in the PC, leftie, dog-loving Pacific Northwest. People cast glances. They comment. Despite neutering being a rarity in places like Europe, the U.S. has done an excellent job of reducing shelter populations and euthanasia of unwanted dogs (though there is much more to be done) by putting the PR out there about spaying/neutering your pets. This has translated into a culture where just about everyone has their dog neutered before it reaches adulthood. You just don't see dogs with testicles walking around much here.

Ever since Remy passed the 6-month mark, people have asked me (sometimes repeatedly) "So when are you going to neuter him?" Many of these people are my friends and family (and if you are one of those people and you are reading this, please know I mean no offense. I probably would have asked this same question a couple of years ago.) But after a while, and after having to answer this question a few too many times, I rather began to resent it. (Even though I fully admit to being one of those spay/neuter promoters myself...I'm entitled to a little cognitive dissonance, aren't I?)

Is it society's job to police the neutering of dogs?
Well, yes, sort of. No one argues that the "ounce of prevention" early neutering has had on reducing the number of unwanted animals and preventing the far-too-prevalent euthanasia taking place in shelters across the country is a good thing. Of note, Best Friends Animal Society estimates the number of cats and dogs that are still euthanized daily in U.S. animal shelters at more than 9,000. That is frightening.

But this is our dog, Remy. He is a beautiful example of his breed. We had talks with his breeder about him potentially being a show dog. And the whole point of being a show dog is to get a championship status and then put the dog out to stud to further enhance the genetics of the breed. Somehow we just couldn't come to grips with having Remy be a show dog or a stud dog. While I still promote adoption of dogs from shelters and rescues, I have no problem with the responsible breeding of pure-bred dogs. We just weren't sure that was something we wanted to get involved with.

Social Observation #2 (aka What I didn't expect...):
Many (and I mean more than half) of the neutered dogs we encounter on the street, at the beach, in the park, etc. behave differently toward an intact male dog than they do toward other neutered dogs. Unfortunately, this different behavior too-often manifests itself as aggression. I stopped counting the number of times Remy has been confronted with growling, teeth-baring, fight-picking aggression from what seemed like perfectly normal, neutered dogs that approached him and smelled his nether-parts. It's wagging and sniffing for starters and within three seconds it all changes.

When Remy was a pup, this wasn't a problem. He just groveled, went into duck-and-cover mode on his back and all was well. But when he got to about 12 months old, things changed. The level of aggression from other dogs went up considerably (at this point we stopped taking him to dog parks, due to dogs ganging up on him and attacking him). And, at this point, Remy decided he was a big boy and he wasn't going to take it anymore.

The strange social thing that happens among the HUMANS accompanying these aggressive, neutered dogs is an assumption that if a dog gets into a fight, it's the intact male who started it. Even if it's not.

Unfortunately, the "is this a friendly dog or not?" thing started coloring our walks with Remy on leash and at the beach. Every time we encountered another dog, we weren't sure if it was going to be "wags and friends" or "hackles and teeth." We didn't want this to become such a pattern that Remy would become wary of other dogs or leash-aggressive. And we really didn't want OUR fear of this to rub off on Remy and make this happen.

So why neuter Remy?
 This is a decision I've been grappling with. The research out there, from what I've seen (and I've looked at a lot) doesn't show much in the way of statistically significant health benefits in neutering a male dog. Prostate and testicular cancers are pretty rare in dogs, from what I've read. (I have heard of enlarged prostate in intact males, though, and there are some health benefits in spaying females, such as a reduction in mammary cancers, which are more prevalent.)

"Behavior" is the main reason cited by most credible sources as a reason to neuter male dogs. I knew that, I just didn't expect that it would be the behavior of other dogs toward Remy that would compel me to want him to be accepted in our local dog society.

Honestly, that is one of the biggest reasons we decided to have Remy neutered. We want to take him on walks, to the beach, out on the hiking trail without worrying that he will be assaulted by other dogs. We also don't want him catching wind of a female dog in heat and adding to the aforementioned dog overpopulation problem. We have no desire to breed him, and there are no major health benefits identified to date associated with neutering a dog after it has reached adult bone maturity. His breeder was OK with it.

But will it make a difference in his behavior now that he's already an adult?
Our breeder and the research suggests it will:
"There is an erroneous feeling that neutering males before puberty is necessary to prevent some problem behaviors, such as urine marking in the home or aggression toward the owners," said Dr. Benjamin L. Hart, a distinguished professor emeritus at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Research done at their center and cited in their paper* shows that neutering males in adulthood, after the onset of problem behavior, is as effective in changing the behavior as neutering before puberty is in preventing the problems.  -- JAVMA News
Ok, Remy doesn't have these particular problems, but I've heard enough from others who had their adult dogs neutered to believe that this will make a difference in how other dogs behave around Remy and it will make a difference in how he reacts to other dogs.

We decided to go through with it.

I don't want to think the human social stigma of having an intact male dog in a largely neutered-dog society had anything to do with it, because that's MY issue, not Remy's. But I do hope that neutering him will help him be better accepted by his peers. He'll be able to run free at the beach, go on hikes and sit under the table at any of Portland's progressive, dog-friendly restaurant patios without getting into a rumble. At least that's the hope. And knowing he'll be less likely to try to escape the yard and that there won't be any scruffy-faced, mixed breed puppies running around our neighborhood with Remy's genes in them is a relief as well.

I am glad we waited to neuter him until he reached maturity, though.

Not long after we got the neutering advice from our breeder, the U. C. Davis veterinary school published a now-much-publicized study on Golden Retrievers that has called into question the practice of early neutering. The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, showed a correlation between early neutering and a higher incidence of musculoskeletal disorders and certain cancers. Specifically:
Of males castrated early—defined in this study as before 1 year of age—10 percent had hip dysplasia, double the occurrence among sexually intact males. Cranial cruciate ligament tears were not diagnosed in any of the sexually intact males or females, but in the early age–neutered males and females, prevalences were 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Lymphosarcoma was diagnosed in almost 10 percent of males castrated early, three times the rate in sexually intact males. -- JAVMA News
I'm not a statistician, but those numbers were enough to give our veterinarian (and, apparently, many others) pause and the study has sparked some interesting debate on the risks and benefits of early spay and neuter vs. neutering later or not neutering at all.

For shelter dogs with an unknown future, early neutering probably makes sense. But for family dogs who have people who will love and cherish and watch over them, waiting until the dog reaches bone maturity just makes sense. Why take the risk?  You may catch a few sideways glances from folks who see your intact male at a year-and-a-half old, but if it's best for the dog, who cares? And for all those folks who ask: "When are you going to neuter him?" it's a teaching opportunity.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Invisible Fence: The Doe Test

This morning we put the Invisible Fence to the test. Well, it wasn't a deliberate test. Rather, it was a happening that tested Remy's adherence to the fence line and raised my confidence level in the product by a huge margin (and it was already pretty high).

It was time for Remy's mid-morning run around the property. It started with the usual routine...I made him sit and wait at the door until I opened it and gave the "Okay" signal. As always, Remy shot out the door on the syllable "kay"and headed out into the yard. I closed the door and stepped out to see a large doe standing just on the other side of the Invisible Fence flags. I thought "well, if this doesn't test the system nothing will."

Remy caught sight of the deer and stopped about half way down the yard to point at it (he is, after all, a pointer). The deer caught sight of Remy and trotted another six feet or so beyond the flags. The deer's movement launched Remy into pursuit -- that is until he got up to the Invisible Fence. Remy stopped. He pointed again. And the deer stopped too and just stared at him. They were maybe 10 feet from each other. The stare down continued as I approached Remy and told him what a good boy he was.

Remy decided something needed to be done and feverishly began running back and forth all the way down the yard, staying clear of the "fence" line. The deer just stood there watching Remy's antics, looking as if she were watching a tennis match. I probably looked the same way.

Then it dawned on me that this deer probably knows what an invisible fence is. There are at least three houses within a mile of us that have their dogs running inside the flags. The deer was probably coming up to check out the flag and when she saw Remy stop short of it, she knew exactly where he wasn't going to go.

I was wishing I had a camera, so I ran inside for the nearest phone. I figured the deer would take off, but she didn't.  Still unfazed by all the barking and running, she just stayed where she was. I approached the fence line with my camera and the second she heard the beep she took off down the orchard. I barely got video of her tail disappearing behind the trees and I didn't get any good video of Remy running along the fence. Bummer.

But I will say that was quite an amazing, up-close test of what an Invisible Fence can do. And it was also a testament to just how accustomed these deer are to living around homes and dogs and yards with little white flags around them.