Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pulling and Parenting

There are some things we can blame on nature vs. nurture...things like having a tendency to point at things (Baxter) or the urge to crawl into small spaces (Kirby). Then there are those other things we would really like to blame on nature, but which we know, down inside, are probably the result of our own parenting skills. In this case I'm referring to pulling on the leash. With Baxter, I've blamed some of this on nature, as the pointer instinct says he should be yards out in front, but I know a lot of it is consistency in training too. Now we have Kirby...surprise, surprise, he likes to pull too. And while I know that his tendency to pull is based partly on seeing Baxter do it and partly on his desire to be in front of the pack, it's also partly (or mostly) because I haven't really taught him to walk loosely on a leash.

There are training advantages to having two dogs. Kirby, being the student of big brother Baxter, tends to do whatever Baxter does. This has been helpful in teaching him good behaviors like sit, lay down, stay and leave-it. Unfortunately, I'm now paying double for never having really mastered the "walk loosely on leash" idea with Baxter. Now I have two of them pulling me down the greenway trail, and determined little Kirby is practically choking himself all the way.

Kirby's face is so small, I can't quite imagine a gentle leader working on him (although I might try it if my latest trainer fails to work), so this past weekend we took Kirby to the pet store to try on a few harnesses. With his somewhat dachshund-esqe figure (long back, barrel chest, tiny neck and shoulders), the small sizes seem uncomfortably tight around the ribcage, yet he's swimming in the mediums. We left the pet store empty handed. Kirby left the pet store pulling and gasping all the way to the car.

Searching for something with fewer buckles and yet a customizable fit, I ran across the Four Paws "No-pull Trainer" yesterday. The name implies that it is to be used for training (as opposed to coping, which has been how I've used the Gentle Leader on Baxter for years), so I'm not sure if it's a good idea to use it all the time. We tried a test run this morning and it seems to work wonders. It's a bit complicated to get on and the buckle is next to impossible to pry open without tools, but once I got it on Kirby and adjusted properly, he didn't seem to be bothered by it at all. He trotted along at a nice, jaunty pace and didn't pull at all, even though Baxter was testing the limits of his Gentle Leader (and my patience) the whole time.

The design of the Four Paws No-Pull Trainer is pretty simple. It doesn't have any metal parts to rub on the dog, which is a plus, and the strap goes in front of the ribcage right under his front legs. My only concern would be chafing in his "armpits" on long walks (if anyone has any experiences with that, please share). And while I'm not sure that chafing is any worse than choking on long walks, I'm hoping it is truly a "trainer" and that with time and patience I can get Kirby to give up his quest for the front of the pack.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

All that sitting wears you out...

We've been making a lot of road trips lately, for a number of reasons both personal and professional, and we've been taking the dogs with us. This past weekend we made a quick turnaround trip involving a 4.5 hour drive each way and a considerable amount of time in the car waiting (the dogs anyway) with occasional outings for short walks and leg stretches. But despite what would seem like a lot of sleeping, I think the dogs worked pretty hard. After all, they had to keep their balance as we made our windy drive through mountain passes. And when we were parked they had to guard the car from intruders. At the motel they had lots of new smells to explore, then another windy trip home.

By the time we got home last night the dogs were exhausted. At least it seemed that way. Kirby did the Kirby Derby a couple of times, then settled down for an evening of sleeping. Bax, of course, had settled down immediately following dinner. Their schedule today was rise, go out, eat breakfast and sleep. Follow me to the office and sleep. Follow me to the living room at lunchtime and sleep. Follow me back to the office and sleep. Follow my husband to the living room to take a nap and now they're just waiting for dinner.

I'm sure we'll settle down to watch a DVD tonight and they'll be all rested up and ready to wrestle and do laps around the house and ring the bell a dozen or so times asking to go out... Just wait...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Crash and Oops

Baxter knows a lot of things that Kirby hasn't figured out yet and a lot of them have to do with knowing when to panic and when not to panic. When Bax was a puppy he would be startled by a loud noise...such as thunder...but only the first time he encountered it. He'd jump, look at us to see if it was something he should worry about, and if we didn't react negatively, he'd let it go. I think this is the wiring of a gun dog.

Kirby, on the other hand, is a bit more tightly wound, so when there's a loud noise, he has only two reactions: if it's close, run and hide and if it's farther away, bark at it (and sometimes run and hide).

One area where Baxter has clearly adapted to the noises of daily life is kitchen accidents. Baxter has learned that a loud noise followed by "oops!" or "(expletive deleted)!," means that there may very well be something tasty on the floor and within his reach.

The other night I was fixing dinner and I accidentally knocked a bottle off the counter. Fortunately it didn't shatter, but it did make a very loud noise that sent Kirby racing under the couch with his tail between his legs. True to form, Baxter passed Kirby going the other direction and within seconds was in the kitchen surveying the floor. Nothing good this time. He looked disappointed.

Kirby waited under the couch until his dinner was served.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Another Beach Trip, Roadwork and Breaching Whales

We made another trip to the coast this past weekend and even though it was a quick one-night visit, we had some truly memorable experiences.

The day we drove out to the coast it was sunny and beautiful all the way. Right about the time we parked the car and unloaded the dogs for a romp on the beach, the fog rolled in. At first I was bummed at the thought of losing our clear and lovely view of the ocean, but this was a pretty spectacular fog. It came in around us, but still allowed visibility out as far as the surf. Unlike our last trip to the beach, there was almost no wind. The sun was still shining brightly enough to cast shadows and the mist that swirled about us created a sort of ethereal space where it seemed at once open and private. The sand, the sea and the air seemed to merge in varying shades of tan. It was absolutely beautiful.

Of course the dogs didn't mind the fog at all and immediately took off running down the beach. My husband took some fantastic pictures and short videos, which I'll share in the days to come.

We had another great night's stay at the La Quinta in Newport, Oregon (which, like every other La Quinta we've stayed in, was comfy, clean and pet-friendly). This one even had a last-minute $49 weekend getaway rate, which made the deal that much sweeter.

The next morning was a bit brighter and we headed back out to the beach. The dogs had another nice romp. But the truly spectacular aspect of that day occurred because of a traffic stop for road construction work. As we sat, waiting for the flagger to tell us it was our turn to pass through, our gazes turned out to sea. I remembered reading that it was approaching whale migration time, so we scanned the horizon for spouts. Almost immediately I spotted one, and during the short time we sat there on the road, perhaps a minute or two, we saw at least 10 whale spouts, all in the same area not far from a fishing boat barely visible on the horizon.

We passed through the construction and stopped at the next turnout. The fishing boat was still barely visible, so we pulled out the binoculars and focused-in on the area we had been watching a mile or so back. As I scanned the horizon I saw a spout, then another, then I saw one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen: a gray whale breaching the surface. I saw its giant body come out of the water, it looked like at least 2/3 of it was visible. I saw the nose, then the body, and as it turned I saw a giant flipper before it came crashing back down into the sea making an enormous splash. I was speechless. Once I regained my composure I handed the binoculars to my husband, who watched the same spot. It couldn't have been more than a minute later and he saw a whale breach too. Same reaction.

I couldn't help feeling that we had both just been given a tremendous gift from nature. We've seen whales spouting before, and we've even gone on a whale-watching trip where we saw the backs of migrating gray whales rise and spout not far from the boat. We even saw a mother whale and her baby rise and spout together, side by side. But never had either of us seen a whale breach. It was so fortunate that we each had a turn at the binoculars when the two breaches happened. To the naked eye it was still pretty cool seeing a large, dark mass rise out of the water and come crashing down, but the binoculars made the sight all the more spectacular.

So I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the whales who, breaching for whatever reason, managed to do so at exactly the right moment for us, twice. And I never thought I'd write this, but I guess I should thank the road department, not only for keeping the lovely Highway 101 in shape, but for stopping us long enough that day to notice the whale spouts out our window.

Next time I won't need the road work. You can bet that every second I'm not behind the wheel, I'll be scanning the horizon for that giant splash.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Rediscovering the Bicycle

I love my new bicycle. It's a beauty. I haven't been so thrilled about getting a new bike since I was a kid. In fact, as I rode home from the bike shop on our local greenway bike trail the other day, I felt a childlike glee come over me and I realized I was riding along with a huge grin on my face. Fortunately, it's still early enough in the year the bugs weren't out...

I've always loved my bikes. My first bicycle was a Huffy, a little red number with training wheels, red grips on the handlebars and a white woven basket on the front decorated with bright plastic daisies. It was a gift from my parents and it was the bike I learned to ride on. After a couple of years my Dad had it updated for me with a white banana seat, a sissy bar and stingray handlebars. I added fluorescent flower stickers and playing cards held on with clothespins that rattled in the spokes to make a chopper-like faux-engine sound. It was very cool.

Of course, I eventually outgrew the groovy red bike and wanted something a tad more sophisticated. My second bike was a brown 3-speed women's bike with fenders, regular handlebars and a comfortable seat. It took me everywhere for the next 6 or 7 years -- across town to visit grandma, down to East Park to play tennis, even to school on a few occasions (with it I got my first combination lock).

When I was in high school I sold a bunch of my childhood toys on a garage sale, took my earnings and went down to the bike shop to buy a shiny new 12-speed road bike. It was a sparkly blue men's bicycle (which all serious riders rode) with drop handlebars and, eventually, toeclips to maximize my power. Compared to my previous bikes, this one was fast. I put a lot of miles on it as my best friend and I crisscrossed northern Iowa seeking out every hill we could find (and that took some looking). No one wore helmets back then, and screaming down a hill with the wind blowing through my hair was pure joy.

But as I matured, the thrill of the whole "go fast" thing wore off. The seat on my bike seemed to get harder, the handlebars more annoying and the skinny tires more dangerous on the sometimes gravel-laden roads of Oregon (in Iowa we used salt to melt the ice, here they use fine cinders or gravel for summer it's a pile right where I want to be riding).

As the years went by my road bike spent most of its time gathering dust. Every so often I would get the idea that I wanted to start riding again, so I'd take it down to the bike shop, get it tuned-up and enjoy a few rides before the winter rains started (I never really got used to the wet stripe up my back). I even rode it to work for a short time. I put on a cushy seat, added some plastic fenders and slightly wider tires, but it still spent more time gathering dust than covering territory. It hasn't been out for a ride since we last moved. It's been five years. Five years in some of the best bike-riding territory in the state. So what's up?

Feeling rather guilty seeing my bicycle out in the garage, covered with sawdust and serving as a makeshift spider condo, I pondered our 25-year on-again, off-again relationship. Was it something about the bike or something about me? I determined it was both. So what would inspire me to ride?

For starters, my mind and body have matured a tad and so have my bicycling desires. Being aerodynamic and going fast are no longer priorities. Being comfortable and feeling stable on my bike are. I always used to think I had to "gear up" to ride my bike...shorts or workout clothes at least (nothing to get caught in the chain), shoes that fit in my toeclips well enough not to cause a minor panic at a stoplight (I had a few close calls over the years), padded gloves (because my handlebars were so hard they made my hands hurt) and, of course, a helmet. Riding the bike was always an event, something I had to get ready to do, and this prevented me from using my bike in a casual way...such as a quick ride down to the post office or to pick up a loaf of bread at the store.

Last fall we had the good fortune to spend a couple of days in Amsterdam, a true bicycle city. There were bikes everywhere. People were riding in their everyday clothes, going to everyday places and using their bikes as their primary mode of transportation. Bicycles lined the sidewalks on nearly every street and at the train station there was a multi-story parking garage filled with nothing but bicycles -- we're talking tens of thousands of bicycles. Rain or shine, these people ride. And the bikes? Nothing fancy. It's almost perfectly flat there, so only one speed is needed. They have chain guards and fenders to keep their clothes clean. They have baskets, comfy seats and ordinary handlebars. They are the kinds of bikes that were so totally un-cool when I was a teenager. Suddenly I found myself longing for one.

The seed that was planted in Amsterdam germinated a few weeks ago as I sat at a stoplight in my car, burning fossil fuel on my way to workout at the local Curves. I was driving my car to a place that's only five miles from my house and 1/2 a block from the greenway trail that parallels the road I was idling on. Suddenly two things dawned on me... 1) riding a bicycle doesn't have to be a production number and 2) #1 is more true if you have an easy bike to ride.

I started looking at bicycles -- not road bikes this time, something more urban and more ordinary. I looked at mountain/road hybrid bikes and I looked at so-called flat foot "cafe racer" kind of bikes (the ones that look like shiny American versions of the Amsterdam bikes). I even tried a Bike Friday folding bike, which was pretty cool and pretty expensive. I'd seriously consider the investment if I were traveling with my bike, as it folds into a standard hardside suitcase. But for day to day use, I just wanted something nice, comfortable and low maintenance.

I started asking myself the tough questions: Do I really need 24 speeds? Probably not. I won't be climbing the Col du Joux Plane any time soon. Do I need more than one speed? Yeah, especially here in hilly Oregon it would be nice to have a few lower gears to help these non-bike-habituated thighs make it to my destination. Do I want speed or comfort? Comfort wins...I never found the drop handlebars and teeny seat to be very comfortable and I know I'd be more likely to ride if the experience were pleasant.

I asked a colleague who formerly owned a bike shop for his recommendation. He got a faraway look in his eye as he pondered the possibilities. He mentioned several makes and models, but became clearly excited at the notion of one bike in particular: the Bianchi Milano. He extolled the virtues of this well-designed bicycle, saying it sounds like just the bike I'm looking for and that it is probably one of the best all-around town bikes in its price range. That price range was a bit beyond the price range I was targeting, but he thought it was well worth every penny. He mentioned it several times and got that faraway look again when he talked about the beautiful "celeste" blue-green color.

Finally, last week, I went to a local bike shop to check out the Milano. While they didn't have any in my size in celeste, (which is pretty darned cool, I have to admit) they did have a 120th anniversary edition in a sleek silver and gray with celeste and red trim. Looks are nice, and this had both form and function.

The Milano 120 comes standard with front and back fenders and a blinking light integrated into the back of the all-leather seat. With only eight speeds and slightly wider tires, I wouldn't expect to do any serious road riding, but because the rear gears are enclosed in the rear wheel (excuse my lack of technical terminology here), there is no derailler. This means it looks like a single-speed bike, with a chain guard in the front to protect my pants and nothing to rattle or get caught-up in the back. Perfect. I looked it up online: everyone who has one seems to love it and they go for years without needing tune-ups (though it's probably a good idea to get one occasionally).

From the second I started pedaling, I liked this bike. Once the guy adjusted the seat for me, I loved the bike. The seat was pretty comfortable, surprisingly so for not having all the springy suspension posts of the mountain and hybrid bikes I'd tried. Changing gears was a snap (my old bike always required a bit of finesse to find the gear and it had a perpetual rattle) and even with only eight gears, the low ones made going up hill a snap. I found I could get a pretty good cruising speed going on the flat (fast enough for me, that's for sure). The cushy leather grips on the handlebars felt like Italian leather gloves. There were no toe clips to reckon with and it had a kickstand for easy parking. This was a bike I could ride any time, any where without making a production number out of it. After a few spins I was hooked. And when I saw that the 120 model was on sale (about $100 off the original price) I was sold.

I am now the proud owner of a Milano and I love it. I've been riding every day, even in the rain (love the fenders!), and rediscovering the joy of riding. I get on my bike in my sweats and ride to the Curves. I get on my bike in my jeans and ride to the post office. The only extra gear I put on is my helmut.

Of course all this bike riding is much to the chagrin of the dogs, who probably feel like they haven't been getting anywhere near enough walks as it is. But I'm sure the excitement will wear off eventually and I'll find a nice balance of both walking and riding. But for now, I'm reliving my childhood just a wee bit and realizing that with a good bike trail running through town, I can get some places just as fast on my bike as I can fighting traffic in my car. And I enjoy the trip a whole lot more.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

La Quinta: Spanish for "Great Pet Policy"

La Quinta has earned my loyalty.

We made another road trip last weekend with the two dogs and, once again, we stayed at a La Quinta. Both Kirby and Baxter remembered the place and even little Kirby trotted right up to the room we stayed in last time (same motel, different floor). I'm amazed at the directional capabilities of canines, even young ones. This is probably because I can't remember where I parked the car at the mall half the time.

Anyway, I just want to take a moment to thank La Quinta for having such a great pet policy. Dogs are welcomed with a smile and sometimes even free biscuits. They don't charge a pet fee (not even for two dogs) and the rooms are equipped with extra counter space, little sinks and refrigerators...perfect for fixing dog dinners (or our case it's always the former). And, to top it off, they're usually clean and quite reasonably priced.

I've stayed in a lot of hotels and motels, for both work and pleasure, many of which do not allow pets or charge very large pet fees (Marriott: $100 non-refundable per pet per visit...unbelievable, but at least they allow them...sometimes), and none of them were any cleaner, more convenient or well-appointed than La Quinta. I've stayed at some very pricey, big-name hotels with fancy lobbies, big chandeliers and absolutely filthy rooms. I think such places don't allow pets because they know their housekeeping staff can barely clean up after people. In my experience, the quality and cleanliness of the La Quinta chain is pretty consistent from motel to motel, at least in Oregon and California where I've spent most of my stays.

Another fun aspect of La Quinta is the camaraderie with other pets and pet owners. The motels tend to draw a dog-loving crowd, so there's often someone to talk to when you're standing out in the grassy area waiting for Fido to do his business. Yes, there's the occasional bark-fest when the housekeeping staff rolls the trolly down the hallway (of course barking is contagious), but I'm always surprised at just how quiet these motels are. Either they have extra insulation in the walls or people who travel with their pets are responsible enough to make their dogs stop barking at the maid.

I wish I could say the same for some of the parents who allow their small children to run up and down the hallways screaming at 7:00am, which we encountered on our previous visit. One could almost hear all the dog owners shushing their pets as the dogs reacted to the ear-splitting screeches. (Now I'm not holding the children responsible here...any normal little kid would love to go running up and down a motel hallway screaming with glee. In those cases it's the parents who are irresponsible and shouldn't be allowed to travel without supervision.)

I seldom see a motel with a "no children" policy (although I did run across a B&B recently). This is because our society pretty much expects children to be able to go anywhere adults go (except for bars and certain other locales of adult entertainment, of course). And motels expect (rightfully so) that parents will have their children under supervision, and the housekeeping staff just has to pick up the pieces after the irresponsible ones leave.

But many places of lodging have a different policy toward companion animals. By their view, because Baxter and Kirby are a different species, they are somehow less clean or less a member of the family than a little human would be. I think there are a lot of families out there who, like us, would beg to differ. And this is especially true from the kids' point of view. I'd be willing to bet you 9 out of 10 kids would say their dog is just as much a member of the family as their little brother or sister is, and in many cases they would probably rather travel with the dog. I say bring 'em all.

The question really comes down to parenting skills. Irresponsible parents are irresponsible parents, whether the little ones they are ignoring are human or canine. And I'm sure the little disaster areas left behind when they check-out bear a striking resemblance (with the exception that dogs leave behind a bit more hair). But we don't discriminate against ALL parents just because some of them don't take good care of their children. I think the same should be true for dogs.

Returning to the La Quinta example: they do not charge a pet fee, but they make you sign a waiver that says if your pet ruins anything, you will be charged. That seems entirely fair to me. Charging me in advance for damage my dogs will not make (thank you, Marriott) is really just a way of saying "we really don't want your pets in here, but we don't want to be seen as not having a pro-pet policy." Hogwash.

The difference between La Quinta and most other mid-range motels out there is that La Quinta trusts their pet-loving guests to be responsible. And, in my experience, their guests oblige by being trustworthy. I think we pet owners are just so happy to have a pet-friendly motel chain, we're extra careful to be as low-impact as possible. We don't want La Quinta to suddently start charging pet fees or, heaven forbid, stop allowing pets altogether.

And a note for those motels who play the allergy card... Again, this is partly an issue of cleanliness. If you are really cleaning and vacuuming the room, you'll pick up most of the pet hair and dander, which are usually responsible for allergies. And for those folks for whom a microscopic amount of dander can create an allergic reaction, offer them the choice of "always pet-free" rooms, just as most motels offer non-smoking rooms. (Honestly, I can sympathize as I was terribly allergic to cats until a few years ago. I could barely breathe after a few minutes in the proximity of cat hair and dander...thanks to NAET acupuncture, that's over...another story).

And while you dog-refusing/allergy-aware motels are at it, maybe you should consider that some people will be allergic to the mold in your bathrooms or the synthetic scents in your shampoos or even the dust in the rooms that your housekeeping staff never bothers to clean. If you are going to have a "no pets due to allergy concerns" policy, you damn well better make sure your rooms are SPOTLESS. I haven't seen one yet. And at this point I really don't plan to give my business to any "no pets" establishments unless I'm at a business function and required to do so.

Interestingly enough, even though ALL rooms at La Quinta motels are pet-friendly rooms, I didn't notice anyone sneezing or wheezing at breakfast (I forgot to mention the free continental breakfast, which is pretty good). Perhaps those who are allergic to pets self-select to stay at other motels. Or, perhaps, La Quinta just happens to run a very clean establishment that caters to responsible people of all types.