Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Baxter on the Cat Walk

This was a banner day for cat-watching. Today's walk got off to a great start. Baxter walked cheerfully at my side and I walked cheerfully absorbing the pale morning sunshine. We stopped to chat briefly with a neighbor and that's when it all started. A little orange cat, affectionately called "Julius" by the neighbors (not their cat) wandered into Baxter's field of view. Baxter immediately went into stealth mode, crouching behind some tall grass and making himself as flat and inconspicuous as possible. It was actually pretty funny to watch. Problem was, Bax refused to leave and I literally had to drag him away. Eventually, after hollering "leave it" about 20 times (I know, such repetition is overkill, but I can't help myself when the battle is on), Bax settled back into the speed-walking groove.

We had another brief "leave it" episode with a dead skunk in the road and then, when we got to our turnaround spot at a lovely little farm shaded by large cottonwood trees, another cat came forth. This cat saw Baxter and immediately started walking toward him. Baxter froze. The cat stretched out on the ground about two feet in front of Bax and started rolling in the leaves and stretching and rubbing his face on the little house number sign in the yard. Baxter seemed to be holding his breath. Every muscle was tensed and he was quivering. Then yet another cat came slinking up to check out the dog torture action.

Perhaps I was at fault for not letting Baxter go right up to the cats, but I was afraid they'd take a sudden turn and I'd be at the vet with a scratched-up dog... Then I thought, "hey, this might be an opportunity to let Baxter calm down around cats..." So we sat there and I spoke in soothing tones and scratched Bax behind the ears and tried to calm him down. It didn't work. So I tried to pull him away and this time I had a full-on battle with him. He twisted and turned and tried to slip out of his collar. He would not leave the cats. Meanwhile, the cats just sat there, seeming to be amused at the show. Finally Bax made a menacing jump toward the cats and they scattered. At long last, his job was done. He turned and decided it was OK to go now.

All the way home he heeled like an obedience champ. I think he knew he had been a bad boy, but the drive to spark a chase was just more than he could hold back on. He was making amends, winning his way back into my good graces. He didn't even make a big deal about the dead skunk, which was now on our side of the road. But I did catch him looking back occasionally to see if the cats were following him. I expect to see some major sleep-running legwork and whining when Baxter goes to bed tonight...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Opal Creek Scruffy Dog

Friends spotted this cute female Griff on the Opal Creek trail in Oregon. With his red backpack on, Bax and this girl could pass for twins on the trail.

That reminds me, it has been far too long since Bax sported his backpack for a day hike. The backpack actually does slow him down a bit. A couple of quarts of water and some biscuits bouncing around kinda dampens the "hey, let's run with wild abandon through the underbrush" tendencies...but not nearly as much as you would think.

Friday, August 25, 2006

So Much for Whispering...Hollering Works Though

Well, my great experiment on being the confident leader while I walk Baxter has come up with mixed results. Sometimes it works. He'll walk along jauntily next to me and actually check-in with me to see how things are going. But other times, even though I exit the door first and do my best to maintain an air of alpha-ness, Baxter decides he absolutely has to be ahead of me and pulling like a husky. Things tend to go pretty well as long as we a) take a familiar route and b) he is not presented with anything particularly interesting (cats, chubby ground-nesting birds, etc.).

Once his focus is in hunting mode, pretty much the only way to reach him is to stand in front of him (to block his view of whatever he's fixated on) and holler "leave it!" a half dozen times. He does give in after a while.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that a seven-year-old pointer will ever let go of his innate desire to be running 200 yards ahead of me looking for birds. That seems like a good excuse. But sometimes he does behave like a gentleman, and he most definitely knows the difference.

For example, I think it's quite interesting that when I drop his leash (only on a protected walking trail with no accessibility to cars) he sticks with me. He heels quite well, and if he does slip ahead, he continually looks back to make sure I'm with him. It's as if he understands that I'm depending on him to stick with me.

Could it be that when Baxter is out in front and pulling, the constant tension of the leash is just his way of keeping track of me?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Scruffy Dog, a Beach and a Stick

This past weekend we took Baxter on a road trip to Portland and then the Oregon Coast. As soon as we hit the highway Bax curled up on his bed and went into what we call his "travel trance," a meditative state that alternates between staring blankly and sleeping. He only rises to window-level when we hit the brakes, at which point he checks to see if there's an impending stop or if it's just a temporary slow-down, in which case he's back in the trance zone within seconds.

Portland was as lovely as ever, but the city was experiencing the same heat wave as the rest of the West. This meant Bax spent most of his time in the air-conditioned motel rather than his preferred back-of-the-car napping spot while we hit the bookstores and restaurants. Much to our relief, the coast was about 30 degrees cooler and also as lovely as ever. We walked up and down the beach, watching pelicans and soaking up the salty air and the pale, cloud-filtered sunshine.

For us, trips to the beach are more about just being near the water and seldom involve actually getting in. Same is true for Bax. Even though he finds lakes and creeks irresistable, Baxter has never been a big fan of swimming in the ocean. I think he, like me, finds the waves a bit cold and intimidating. So Baxter managed to stay remarkably dry for most of the day...that is, until we decided that no trip to the beach would be complete without a game of fetch.

We found a very large piece of driftwood (Bax loves a challenge) sitting on the beach next to a small, salt-water pond that had formed just inside the breaking surf. I think we all spotted the stick it at the same time, because Baxter immediately began hopping up and down in place as if to say "throw it, throw it!" But when my husband picked it up and heaved the big stick down the beach, Bax made a 90-degree turn and dove straight into the salty pond, swimming out to the middle to search for the stick. The fact that the stick was sitting on the sand about 20 yards in the other direction completely eluded him. And our hopes of returning to the motel with nothing but sandy feet to wash were dashed in a matter of seconds. Now we had a salty, slimy, stick-free dog looking confused and swimming around in circles.

I guess we should have figured this would happen. Baxter prefers to play fetch in the water (apparently even if that's NOT where you threw the stick). He gets tired of fetching on land and quits after about two rounds. But if you throw a stick into a pond, Baxter will play fetch all day (or until your arm collapses in exhaustion, whichever comes first). I don't know why it's so much more compelling to fetch when water is involved...Baxter doesn't just swim for the sake of swimming, as some water dogs do. But he loves to swim when he has a purpose, a destination. So not finding the stick in the pond left Bax looking as confused as we did watching the stick go in one direction and Baxter go in the other.

Of course, being the dutiful dog parents we are, we decided not to dwell on our dog's lack of keen observational skills and instead we went and got the stick and proceeded to throw it over and over into the salty pond. (What the heck, he was already slimy.) And each time, Baxter launched himself into the pond with gusto, well ahead of our throwing the stick, and paddled around in the middle waiting for it to plop down into the water before him.

After we got back to the motel my husband was nice enough to volunteer for bath duty, which de-slimed Baxter nicely and made him a whole lot easier to ride in the car with the next morning. As we drove back home into the hot, dry sunshine, I found myself wishing we were still at the beach. As much as I enjoy a weekend getaway, it seems there is never enough time for surf-watching, strolling and stick-throwing.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Dog Whispering?

Every now and then I tune-in to "The Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic Channel. While I think the show does share some strong messages about dog psychology (and human psychology in relation to dogs), I sometimes find the shows to be a bit frustrating. Cesar, the host, does a great job of showcasing how well he works with dogs and their people, but the segments too often are cut just short of providing actionable advice (other than "buy Cesar's books and DVDs" of course).

Perhaps the trick is watching enough episodes that the tidbits of information finally coalesce into a coherent instruction, because today's episode actually did teach me something. And the resulting transformation in my interaction with Baxter during this morning's walk was quite substantial. The subject of the show was a Brittany who, with that familiar hunting dog enthusiasm, pulled incessantly on her leash during walks. This has been a problem with Baxter (and us) since he was a little puppy...

Context flashback: When I took Bax to puppy obedience class, he would heel and walk loosely on a leash with no problem...in class. But when we got out into the real world, all bets were off and walks became a tug-fest. My husband and I read the Monks of New Skete book and worked hard to establish our roles as pack leaders. We tried a slip (choke) collar, which sort of worked if we yanked on it every five seconds, but it pulled most of the hair out of his neck and Bax seemed to be constantly resisting it. Then we got a Gentle Leader, which helped immensely at first, but he eventually developed strong neck muscles on one side and still managed to pull (although not as shoulder-dislocatingly hard as without it).

Over the years, nothing much has changed in our walking style. In the house, the pack order is well-established and Baxter is quite deferential and eager to please us both. But for some reason, once we're in the outdoor realm, Baxter still turns into a furry Napoleon, charging boldly into whatever lies ahead and dragging us along for the ride. After a while, I finally gave up and just figured my dream of one day walking Baxter with a normal collar and leash wasn't ever going to happen.

Something changed this morning and I'm pretty sure it was me.

In the episode I watched this morning, Cesar showed the Brittany's owners how to project an energy of leadership when they walked their dog. He had them keep a short leash and pull the dog back to a heel position, which helped. But the real change was obvious with the shift in the human walker's attitude -- projecting an air of confidence and leadership seemed to work wonders with the dog.

"Could it be that simple?" I asked myself. Could this whole pulling thing be just a matter of attitude?

Note to self: check your attitude. Let's see. When we walk, I talk to Baxter, but my body language is pretty much resigned to a back-leaning, resistance-countering dog-in-the-lead position. I'm usually eager to get my own exercise in, so stopping every five seconds to give him corrections does rather get in the way. I've tried keeping Bax at heel before, which works for a time, but then it turns into an isometric exercise for one arm and I feel bad that I'm depriving him of his sniffing and exploring time, which seems to be one of his favorite aspects of the walk.

My former obedience instructor led me to believe that it's possible to allow a dog to walk freely in front of you on a loose leash if the dog is just trained well enough. Is it possible that Baxter will always see being in front as a sign that he's in charge? Is it possible that my feelings of guilt about keeping him at heel have actually caused our walks to be the pulling, sniffing free-for-alls they currently are?

Fake it 'til you make it. When a corporate trainer told me this last year I initially bristled. I don't like the idea of acting when I'm not in a play. It just doesn't feel authentic to me. But I later realized that there is an element of truth to it in certain situations, especially when my own lack of confidence is the issue. If I play the part of a more confident person, I gradually become a more confident person. I get it, this is basically what Cesar is telling me to do with the dog.

So this morning I faked it. I left the Gentle Leader at home, put on Baxter's regular collar and leash and I stepped out the door first. I held Baxter close to my side in a heel position while I held my head high, stood up straight and walked like a woman with confidence and conviction. Much to my amazement, Baxter walked right next to me. He barely tried to pull ahead at all and responded immediately to a slight tug back.

"This won't last," I found myself saying internally. Oops, back to confidence. We continued. I let him have occasional "free time" to sniff in a couple of places and to do his business in spots I know he loves, then we were back to work. Baxter almost seemed proud to be walking next to me. He was a dog on a mission, and he looked up at me occasionally as if to say "how am I doing?" At one point, when we were on a fairly enclosed strip of walking path with no one else in sight, I even dropped the leash and, to my astonishment, Baxter continued to walk right next to me. When he started to pull ahead I said "hey" and stepped on the leash (something I've seen street kids do with their amazingly well-trained city dogs) and he slowed back down to walk next to me. The next time, all it took was a quick verbal and Bax was back at my side. Apparently attitude is far more meaningful to Baxter than I had ever realized.

I'm not ready to say he and I are cured of our "tug of war" walking entirely, it will take practice, especially in unfamiliar areas rife with sniffing opportunities. But this morning's walk was nothing short of AMAZING and it changed my perspective. Maybe Cesar's whispers finally reached me after all...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Send Me Your Cutest Scruffy Dogs!

As you may have noticed from my previous post, friends occasionally send me pictures of scruffy dogs they've spotted out and about. If you have a great scruffy dog photo you would like to share, please send it to me at: scruffydogs@hotmail.com.

Baxter and Bear

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Scruffy Sightings

Courtesy of KM-Clear:

From Portland, OR:
Puppy eating rice under the table at a Vietnamese restaurant

From Lake Oswego, OR Farmer's Market

From Mexico: street scruffy

Friday, August 11, 2006

More Scruffy Dogs...

I had another heart-tugging afternoon looking at the scruffy dogs available for adoption across the country. There are so many sweet dogs deserving homes. Have a look... Adopt a Scruffy Dog

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Emergency Room and Lessons About Middle-Age

Well, Baxter made his first-ever trip to the emergency room last evening. I'll start off by saying everything seems to be fine today, but last night we had a bit of a scare. After a nice afternoon of romping around the yard and manning his post at the window in my office, it didn't seem at all odd that Baxter was laying around. But when I put his food in his dish and called him over, he didn't come. He just stayed where he was, looking at me with this wistful, faraway look. I kept calling him and eventually he got himself up with quite a labored effort, hobbled a few steps with his back legs bent and his hind end hunched over, gingerly sat back down then just looked at us with this pathetic "I would if I could" kind of expression. Something was definitely wrong.

Could he have eaten something in the yard that's making him sick to his stomach? Could he have a blockage? Constipation? Or was it his back or his hips or legs? It was pretty much impossible to tell. Baxter is pretty stoic, he doesn't yelp when he's in pain, as a rule, he just hunkers down and gets a faraway look. Finally, after much coaxing, he got up and shuffled over to his dish and ate his dinner.

We sat down to eat our own and noticed that Baxter's breathing seemed rapid and he kept repositioning himself, moving as if he couldn't get comfortable no matter what position he was in.
Being the concerned dog parents we are, we called the vet's office and were referred to the emergency hospital. Was this emergency-worthy? It's hard to know. It could be a sore muscle or it could be the beginning of a serious "ate the wrong thing" intestinal situation.

We decided to take him outside to see if he had to go. He did all his business with no problems and walked slowly at our side (which itself is really strange for Baxter). We thought he seemed a bit better until we got back into the house and he wouldn't even play with his toy. We did our usual game of hide and seek with bunny (we hide it somewhere in the house while he waits, then we tell him "go get it!" and he will hunt for as long as it takes to find bunny and return with a galloping "I did it!" gait). He took forever to get up, slowly padded into the other room, found bunny, then just stood in the doorway, as if he couldn't come back.

"Ok, he's definitely going to the vet."

We waited for what seemed like an eternity and finally the tech came in and got his vitals. His heart was racing a bit, but his temperature was normal. Whew on that. But after the vet carefully examined him, her determination was that he either had a sore hip or an unknown intestinal problem (he winced whenever anyone touched him around his lower stomach, back and hind quarters). We knew that much already, but without him being able to tell us what was wrong specifically, we just had to wait for him to either get sicker or get better before moving on to the next stage of diagnosis -- blood tests and x-rays. The vet said her hunch was that he somehow injured his hip, so she sent us home with some Rimadyl and instructions to keep him on low activity for a few days. $100+ and a couple of hours later as we prepared to lift Baxter into the car, he jumped in on his own. Great for his hip, I'm sure. For a moment I wondered if it had all been a dramatic act, but when we got home we could tell he was still walking hunched over in the back. He took his Rimadyl and we went to bed.

This morning he was bright eyed and bushy-tailed as ever. We've been limiting his activity, but he seems to be just fine and not really favoring the hip much, if at all. We called Dr. Pema just to make sure there wouldn't be any complications between the Rimadyl and his Chinese herbs. She said not at all, and it was her bet that he had a subluxated vertebrae -- he probably stood up or turned around the wrong way and threw out his lower back. Just like people, when you feel that crunch, you don't much feel like moving or doing anything. Then, after the muscles relax, things pop back in and you're fine.

I realized, at this point, that dogs and people experience some of the same things at middle age. My husband and I have always been fairly active people and we frequently discuss how much more likely we are to injure ourselves now than we were even five years ago. It seems there are more aches and pains and creaking joints with each passing year, and the old sports injuries from 20 years ago suddenly offer up reminders. Perhaps those of us who have been a bit more athletic have put a few more miles on our feet and legs and hips than those who spent more time sitting around. And I suppose this goes for dogs like Baxter as well. He ran like a puppy at the dog park last weekend. Then four days later he stands up and throws out his back. Unlike us, he doesn't complain about it. And if we'd left things alone, he probably would have just suffered through the night and still been fine this morning. But on the off chance it could have been something more serious, we're still glad we took him in. If something had gone wrong in the night, we never would have forgiven ourselves.

We're just glad Baxter is OK. And, if nothing else, this little episode has served as a wake-up call to how quickly life goes by, especially for a dog. Baxter may still run like a teenager, but he is not a teenager. He's just eeked past us in dog-years, and within a few more he will be an old man. That's just life in the doggy fast-lane. And we need to cherish every moment we have with our precious companion and play "go find bunny" as often as we can.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Comfort of Dogs

Some dogs (if not most) seem to have this innate ability to sense when someone is fragile, either physically or emotionally, and their behavior changes in response. When I was a teenager, my elderly grandmother lived with us. She was frail and a bit unsteady, and while she liked our little scruffy terrier Katie, she didn't want to be jumped on. Katie, a fiesty, mind-of-her-own kind of dog who normally had free run of the house (including all furniture and peoples' laps), knew this. Instead of jumping up on Grandma's lap, she would slide up alongside Grandma's chair, just within petting distance, then curl up and sleep at Grandma's feet. Katie also instinctively knew which house guests were off limits for physical greetings, and she knew our friend Jane was basically a human jungle-gym and treated her as such.

I've always loved this aspect of Baxter's character as well, and it makes me feel all the more devoted to him. When I'm not feeling well physically or emotionally, he is always there and is extra gentle. He knows something is wrong, and he sticks to me like glue (even more so than usual). He tries to bark softly when he knows I'm trying to sleep (that little under-the-breath "voof" is sometimes funny enough to make me feel a bit better). He is also extremely tender with my Mom. He knows she's not as strong as I am, so when he walks he doesn't pull as hard. Oh, he still pulls, but it always amazes me how much he can show restraint when he knows it's necessary (lesson to self re: training).

Studies have shown that the presence of dogs actually has healing properties, such as lowering blood pressure and easing depression. I know this is true. Baxter brings a calm into the room when I'm stressed, and he shows up with bunny and a "wanna play?" grin when I'm down. Just when I'm taking things too seriously, he manages to do something hilarious that reminds me to appreciate the humor in daily life. He is my furry shoulder to cry upon and the playmate who takes me outside my head and back into my heart.

When we are stressing about the toils of daily life in the material world, dogs bring a bit of nature back into our lives; and just by being dogs, they remind us of all the best we can be as people.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Does Your Dog Watch TV?

I know a few people who say their dogs watch television. They claim Animal Planet provides hours of entertainment for their dogs, and they'll even leave it on when they're not home. Not Baxter. I don't know if he finds it too perplexing or too boring, but he shows almost no interest in television at all.

Baxter showed a brief interest in television when he was a puppy, and seemed to have a particular fondness for anything that involved balls and sticks (baseball, golf, tennis...) . He had this habit of running behind the TV, seemingly in search of what was on the screen. But the gloss soon wore off. Oh, there's the occasional wolf howling or a bird singing that will perk his ears. And he does still react to doorbells on TV, at which point he starts barking and running for the door. (These are the times we question his intelligence. Then again, a bell on TV probably makes about as much sense to a dog as a bell on the wall.) Not that we want to encourage him to waste his days watching the boob tube instead of sleeping and looking out the window, but occasionally we'll try to point things out to him and he'll glance at the screen and then sigh and go back to whatever he was doing.

So I was quite surprised to see Baxter's reaction today to a video I was playing on my computer. A friend sent me a "Chickflix" video she had made (it's a Burger King site where you can assemble your own video using clips of live chickens and boxes of french fries...pretty surreal). Anyway, as I played it, I looked over and saw Baxter looking intently at the computer screen. The chickens started clucking and moving and, true to his more youthful folly, he immediately ran behind my desk looking for the chickens. He seemed disappointed.

Perhaps it's not that Baxter is disinterested in television... Perhaps we're just not watching enough nature programs that feature fat-chested ground nesting birds...

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Dog Park Knee Cap Take-down

If you've ever been to a dog park, most likely you've seen one of these. An unsuspecting person, we'll call her Sue, has brought her dog Rover to enjoy the exercise and social milieu of the dog park. Rover takes off running. And, like all of the other people at the dog park, Sue stands there, her attention divided between the dog (in case of something shovel-worthy) and the other dog parents, with whom she is engaged in conversation about the best biscuits, the pros and cons of Gentle Leaders and other such dog-owner-speak.

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, in comes Rover, heading for his human at top speed with a pack of canines in hot pursuit. (The dogs have an acre to romp in, but for some reason the small area where the people are standing is much more interesting.) Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to engage Sue in his game of chase, Rover doesn't put on the brakes quite soon enough and careens smack into Sue's right knee cap. At best, she's just knocked over. At worst, she'll be in a brace for weeks.

I've seen this happen more times than I can count. It's happened to me on more than one occasion (thank goodness I've managed to avoid serious injury). But I'm a bit more savvy and wary now. One can usually spot the experienced dog-park-goers from the newbies. Those in the know always keep an eye out for the marauding pack, no matter how interesting the conversation becomes. They keep a stable stance, never lock their knees and have mastered a side-step routine that's rivaled only in professional dodge-ball.

I'm not quite sure what the dogs are getting out of this. Perhaps when we think they're all just sniffing around each other, they're really plotting their next approach pattern... Come to think of it, watching a bunch of panic-stricken, side-stepping humans scattering like bowling pins is probably pretty amusing. Who's the alpha now, eh?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bear, Bunny and the Shredder

Bax and Bunny
Originally uploaded by ScruffyDog.
Baxter's favorite toys are a fuzzy, brown moose with a squeaker (named "Bear" after a previous stuffed toy that has since left this world) and "Bunny," a lanky, stuffed, blue fleece bunny rabbit with four squeakers in various body parts. Bax carries these toys around the house from room to room. He sits and squeaks them with much amusement. He takes them to work in the morning, and when we travel, he takes one of them to bed with him and sleeps with a paw curled around it. At the moment, Bax is using both Bear and Bunny as a pillow at the foot of my desk. But Baxter's love of soft, fuzzy, squeaky toys is a relatively new development in the last couple of years. Prior to that, no stuffed toy lasted more than a few days (or a few hours) in our household.

When Baxter was a tiny puppy he shredded anything we put into his crate (this included bedding). As he grew a bit older and we gave him the run of the kitchen area, he would shred anything we put behind his gate...be it blankets, toys or newspaper. But as he got older and we gave him free run of the house, he stopped shredding things unless we gave them to him. People usually look at me with suspicion when I tell them that Baxter has never chewed anything in the house that wasn't his. But it's true. For the first year of his life we followed him around whenever he was loose in the house and emphatically said "NO!" every time he attempted to grab anything. My husband is an artist and we had a lot of delicate items within puppy reach, so this was a necessity, and Baxter, being the keen-to-please kinda guy he is, went along with it.

But when it came to his toys -- that is, anything we handed to him to play with -- he would immediately go to work at ripping it apart. He has always been an enthusiastic chewer, whether it be rawhides or chewy bones or Kongs. In fact, people at the pet store would guarantee us a certain toy would be "virtually indestructable." Baxter must have been among the small percentage of young dogs who made up that difference between "virtually" and "totally," because he always managed to tear the toys apart, even if they were made of the hardest rubber available. I think it's a combination of having really sharp teeth and a single-minded tenacity that enables him to focus on pulling something apart for hour on end.

We knew other people whose dogs liked to carry around stuffed animals, and they would play happily with them for weeks without tearing them apart. Not Baxter. No matter how cute and fluffy the animal was, it was a pile of stuffing and a squeaker on the floor in a matter of hours. But that didn't stop us from trying, on occasion, to see if we could get Baxter to play nice with one of his stuffed animal toys. I don't know what happened, but a couple of years ago we tried giving him a Castor and Pollux fleece bear. It took him weeks to start ripping holes in it. And we'd catch him licking it and sleeping on it from time to time. After going through several bears (which I stitched-up so they would last longer) we came upon the moose and Baxter has played with that moose for at least six months without any sewing necessary. Then, when he was staying with a friend while we were away, he was given the blue bunny and it has been love ever since. I've never seen him so crazy about a toy. Ever. It's hilarious to see him standing there, inviting us to chase him, with this blue bunny in his mouth, the ears, arms and legs dangling half way to the floor.

I guess along with age comes a certain respect for things. I know this is true for me, and it seems to be true for Baxter. Long live Bear and Bunny.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Dog's Sense of Direction

Baxter's sense of direction never ceases to amaze me. Of course, I'm one of those direction-impaired people who can't find my car in the mall parking lot half the time, so when animals achieve great feats of geographic memory and accuracy (for example the swallows returning to Capistrano or salmon swimming in the Pacific for a half-dozen years and then finding their way back to tiny tributaries in Idaho where they hatched), I'm in awe. It's humbling to realize that most creatures on the planet have a better sense of direction than I do.

And Baxter is no exception. If one day, on one of our walks, he spots a cat sitting on the front porch of a house, he will remember that house forever. Months can go by, but the next time we pass that house Baxter will start pulling for the porch, even if there are no felines to be found. So, when I struggle with Baxter to remember some task he had mastered the day before (such as bringing me my slippers) only to be met with a completely blank stare, I am not tempted to think he has a bad memory. Perhaps it's situational. Perhaps it's a matter of choice (it is a rather subservient task). Or perhaps it has more to do with the type of memory being called upon. Perhaps dogs just have some sort of built-in GPS that marks all the great spots along the trail.

Intrigued by this possibility, I looked into it a bit more. Of course, my favorite dog book The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky has an answer. As it turns out, scientists have discovered that dogs actually DO have some sort of geographic mapping capability hardwired into their brains. When they see or smell something particularly interesting (a dead squirrel, for example), their brains map that location like a geographical coordinate in space. A sort of doggy longitude and lattitude. Budiansky cites research done by psychologist Nicole Chapuis that shows dogs can form "mental maps of their environment, and through a combination of recognizing familiar landmarks and dead reckoning determine their location and the relative orientation of sites of interest, even along unfamiliar routes." It's particularly interesting to me that dogs don't necessarily find their way back to places by retracing a previous route (which is how I usually have to do it). They take short cuts, because, rather like a GPS, they've mapped the spot in their minds, not just the route.

Alas, after seven years of daily walks, Baxter must have mapped the location of every cat he's spotted in two home cities and dozens of vacation destinations. No wonder he doesn't have room to remember my slippers!