Thursday, September 28, 2006

Grandma Comes for a Visit

My mother, who refers to Baxter as "the grand-dog," arrived yesterday evening. She walked through the door and Baxter immediately launched into his "I haven't seen you in AGES" greeting. Those who say dogs have no concept of time haven't spent enough time around dogs. Now I don't know if Baxter knows the difference between, say, 2 hours and 4 hours. He just knows it's been a while, and we get a normal greeting: bring the stuffed bear over and wag your tail. But he definitely knows the difference between 2 hours and 2 days: come running, wag tail vigorously and jump up and down with your front feet, smell the pants, jump up and down some more, then go get bear. Baxter hasn't seen my mom since the end of June, when we left her house in Arizona, so the greeting was more like: come running, wag tail vigorously, jump up and down with your front feet, run around in circles a bunch of times, jump up and down some more, and tremble with joy. An extended pack-member has returned to the nest! Wooohooo!

Baxter loves my mom. Last evening, as she sat on the couch cooing sweet grandma talk to him, he just sat there in front of her, with his big scruffy head on her lap, looking up into her eyes. With her, Baxter is pretty much a saint...a well-behaved foot-warmer, biscuit beggar and general all-purpose sweet loving thing. He knows he needs to be gentle with her. No rough-housing. And he walks differently with her too. It's as if he knows just how hard he can pull.

Grandma is going to be watching the grand-dog while the dog-parents are out of town, and Baxter is going to have a ball (sure beats the boarding kennel). And when we get back, I'm sure he'll be just as sweetly spoiled as any grandchild.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dogs in Translation

I'm currently reading a book called Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by Temple Grandin, a woman who is, herself, a highly-functioning autistic person with a PhD in animal behavior. This book is fascinating, not only for her unique insights into animal behavior, but also for her unique insights into what it is like to have autism. As one reviewer notes, it's difficult to tell if this is a book that uses autism to help describe how animals think or if it's a book that uses animals to help describe how autistic people think. Either way, it is a fascinating read.

Grandin's premise is that people with autism think differently than "normal" people, and this different way of thinking is similar to the way animals perceive and think about their world. She explains how autistic people tend to think in pictures rather than words and often do not have the ability to draw complex, abstract conclusions based on what they are perceiving. Not being able to effectively process all the sights and sounds around them can result in a sort of sensory overload and difficulty functioning in the normal human world. She explains how autistic people tend not to see the "big picture" and are sometimes completely immersed in the details (e.g. autistic savants who can drop a box of matches and count them almost instantly).

Grandin cites research in animal behavior that suggests animals also think chiefly in pictures and, similar to some autistic people, can perform amazing feats of talent and focus, but do not necessarily extrapolate what they are perceiving into abstract thoughts and ideas in the same way normal humans do. That is not to say animals don't think or feel emotions, quite the contrary, says Grandin. By using this vastly different experience of human perception and thought, she offers a window into how animals may perceive the world and offers the perspective that there are many forms of thinking and intelligence beyond the normal human way.

The book is also interesting for the way Grandin uses language. She writes about human and animal emotions, yet her writing is itself almost devoid of emotion. She uses a lot of anecdotal evidence as well as scientific evidence to support her positions, but by far, the most interesting aspects of the book for me are her descriptions of her own experiences in the world of humans and animals. It's rare to get a glimpse of how the world looks to an autistic person, and I think she makes some compelling arguments for how understanding autism may help bridge the gap in understanding how animals and humans think in different ways.

As for understanding Baxter, well, it does explain some of his behaviors pretty well. I'll write more about that in future posts. Right now, I just look forward to finishing the book, and I'm adding it to The Truth About Dogs on my list of most interesting animal books.

- Scruffy Dogs Rule

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Scruffy Dog Redefines "Bed Head"

One of Baxter's favorite sleep positions...

- Scruffy Dogs Rule

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bad Hair Days

Baxter wakes up in the morning with serious bed head. We're talking hair sticking out all over, moustache smooshed up on one side, an asymetrical scruffy mess. But one thing I envy about Baxter is his ability to give a good full-body shake and every hair falls into place. Well, granted, what's "in place" for Baxter is still pretty scruffy, but at least it doesn't look like morning face anymore.

I'm not so lucky. I recently got a surprise haircut. It wasn't a surprise that I got a haircut...I actually went to a salon to get one. The surprise came when she picked up the first wad of hair and cut it off about three inches shorter than I expected. What was, I thought, to be a layered bob turned out to be a short layered haircut. Most people who subsequently saw me with my new "do" said they really liked it on me, but it took me a while longer to get used to the short mop that greeted me in the mirror.

But one thing I haven't quite adjusted to is morning hair. It's pretty wild, sticking up all over, and not in that stylish "flippy" sort of way either. I guess the former length helped to weigh it down and prevent bed head, but now that it's short, those follicles seem to be having quite a rowdy time while I'm sleeping. Shaking my head only gives me a headache. Brushing? No appreciable difference. No, this haircut takes a good washing to bring out it's inner beauty. I'm afraid the people at the gym in the morning are just going to have to laugh or look the other way. And the more I stare at that strange morning "do" in the mirror, the more I realize that my hair looks like Baxter's, both in terms of it's shifting color and it's rather random shape. I've always loved scruffies, now I guess I get to BE least until my shower.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Close Encounter of the Feline Kind

Kittens are pretty clueless, but they're exceedingly cute and curious and they can run fast when they have to. We found this out today on our walk when a white kitten with dark patches, I'd say seven or eight months old at the most, came trotting toward us to say hello. Baxter froze. He crouched onto his stomach (stealth position) and then began crawling in the grass, toward the kitten, with his belly not more than 2-3 inches off the ground...

The kitten didn't seem to realize this was a threatening gesture on Baxter's part and he continued to approach us. I wrapped the leash tightly around my hand and grabbed Baxter's collar (fortunately I had the gentle leader on him today), hoping to avoid a confrontation. The kitten paused inquisitively, then continued. "Perhaps this is a fresh opportunity for Baxter to make friends with a kitty who is not already jaded around dogs," I thought to myself. Perhaps Baxter just needs a cute, clueless kitten to break the ice.

Well, ice is what the kitten least at first. Baxter froze as the kitten walked right up to him and started rubbing his head and body against Baxter's leg. I reached over and petted the kitten and then I carressed Baxter gently and said soothing things like "Isn't that a nice kitty?" Baxter seemed to be in a state of shock. He didn't move a muscle. He just stood there motionless, as if under a spell, watching the kitten out of the corner of his eye. I maintained a firm grip on the leash and wondered how long this would go on. The kitten sniffed Baxter up and down and then, after thoroughly rubbing his scent on Baxter's leg, turned to walk away nonchalantly.

I think it was something about the flick of the tail as the cat turned away, but the spell was broken. Baxter waited until the cat got a few feet away (outside striking distance perhaps), and then he lunged. The chase was on. The kitten hissed and high-tailed it behind a bush while Baxter tore loose from my grip, knocked me over and pulled to the end of his leash. I ended up spread-eagle on the ground with my hands in front of me, one still holding the end of the leash. It must have been a funny scene.

Baxter seemed to be quite satisfied that he had scared the kitten away, and we continued with our walk. But we'll never be able to pass that spot again without Baxter going on high alert, I'm sure.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Bathtime Breakthrough

We're very proud of of our scruffy dog. In the seven+ years we've known Baxter he has never, ever, willingly submitted to a bath...that is, until this past Saturday. We're not sure if it was a matter of wanting to get the eau-de-kennel smell off after his stint at the North Pole or our side comments about going for a ride in the car later that day, but something changed. When my husband said "C'mon Bax, it's time for a bath" (at which point Baxter usually high-tails it for his bed, where he digs in until he's physically dragged into the shower), Baxter quietly walked into the bathroom, stepped into the shower stall and sat down on command. It was truly remarkable. No cowering in the corner. No desperate scrambling. No toenails digging into the vinyl floor. No picking up his hind-end like a wheel-barrow and shoving him in. Just a somber, but resigned, walk into the shower and total acceptance of his fate. This dog never ceases to amaze us.

Of course, upon exiting the shower (which he always loves...for some reason, he's the only water dog I know who hates baths but loves being dried), he was gleeful. He got a chewie (as usual) and he DID get to go for a ride in the car that day, so there's not much more positive reinforcement we could have offered. Now he smells a LOT better and we're still kind of in shock about his change of heart. It will be interesting to see if it repeats...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Baxter Goes to the North Pole

Due to a family emergency, ScruffyDog and spouse had to be out of town for a few days, which meant dear Baxter needed to find shelter for a few days. Fortunately, a local kennel (oddly called the North Pole) had space. Baxter has spent time in kennels before, and we usually look for a boarding facility that allows the dogs to run around in the yard at least twice a day to do their duty. I don't know what Bax would do if he couldn't get out to do his business...but I wouldn't want to find out.

If we could, we would take Baxter with us wherever we go. He's an integral part of our family, he travels very well and when it comes to the motel, he's quieter and tidier than most children we know. But whenever travel involves an airplane, we leave Baxter at home. Frankly, we're a little scared to put him in a crate in the hold of an airplane. Too many horror stories. And I think it would probably be terrifying for him. Certainly much worse than a few days at the North Pole.

I've been waiting for Companion Air to finally get off the ground. For years they've been building an airline that will have a kennel facility in the back of the cabin. Passengers ride up front and are allowed to go back and visit their animals at regular intervals. I'd pay double for the ability to do that, particularly on a long cross-country or a transatlantic flight. Heck, I'd pay triple.

With so many dog owners out there, I can't believe some major airline isn't catering to people with animals larger than a purse. If you know of one, please let me know!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Leash or Tracking Device?

Ok, sometimes it's hard to keep track of me. ScruffyDog has been off the blog for a few days, dealing with family issues and an increasing workload. Of course, this also means that Baxter and I haven't been getting as much walking in, which means I get to sit here listening to him sigh and groan as he waits for me to leave the computer. We finally got out yesterday, in the heat of mid-day instead of the cool morning, and went for a jog (more like a slog at 90+ degrees, but it was short). And I further confirmed my suspicions about Baxter's pulling.

Interestingly enough, Baxter has continued to prove to me that the leash-pulling is less about pulling me and more about keeping tension so he knows where I am. Yesterday we started the walk on a greenway path winding through our area. Bax was very excited to FINALLY get out on a walk and he was at the end of the leash and tugging right away. When we got to a protected area away from cars and other people, I dropped the leash and let it drag behind him. The transformation was immediate. He slowed down and stayed just slightly ahead of me where he could keep an eye on me and my shadow (and where I could step on the leash if a quick stop was needed). I picked up the pace to a jog, he picked up the pace with me. I slowed down, he slowed down. I stopped. He stopped. He was right there. So I picked up the leash and continued. He started pulling immediately, as if the leash had set him free to forge ahead and sniff around without worrying about where I was. We did this two or three different times, each with the same results. It was amazing.

This pretty much confirms that I've been misinterpreting Baxter's behavior, at least the constant-tension-leash-pull part, for years. It's not just that I'm not going fast enough for him. It's not that the leash is a restraint for him... It's a tracking device for me! In Baxter-world, I'm someone who needs to be kept track of, and this handy device enables him to know where I am at all times without having to look or listen. Off-leash he has a job to do...maintain awareness of my location. And he does it well.

But I have to admit, I don't trust him entirely in that regard. At least not in a suburb full of cars, trucks and other hazards. I still think his hunting instinct is greater than his "keep track of alpha female" instinct, and I have no doubt that my little angel would take off if he saw a cat or rabbit dodging across the street.

So unless we're in a safe area, Baxter will continue to track me on the leash.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Portland, Oregon: "DogTown USA"

As a former Portlander and frequent visitor, I'm proud to say that Portland has just been ranked by Dog Fancy magazine as the #1 best all-around city for dogs in America. Yup. I believe it. Just about everyone we know there has at least one dog. The dog parks are the social milieu for dogs and dog lovers alike (watch your knees), and now there are even a few restaurants catering to our canine companions.

According to the Portland Business Journal, new doggy daycares are opening up in Portland faster than new Starbucks (sounds impressive, but given that Portland is already pretty saturated with Starbucks and thousands of other purveyors of expensive coffee drinks, that's not such a surprise). But I have to say, they make a good combination -- nothing warms your heart (or your hands) better than a steaming latte on a cold winter morning at the dog park.