Monday, October 06, 2014

Happy 2nd Birthday, Remy!

Remy - 2 Years - Newport, Oregon (29 Sept. 2014)

On September 29, 2014 Remy turned two years old. He was almost my birthday puppy -- Remy's mama began delivering pups on September 28, 2012 and I had my fingers crossed for a birthday puppy. Alas, the whelping went on into the wee hours of the next morning and that is when Remy came into the world. So we share a great "24 hours" of birthday. This year we spent our birthday weekend in the coastal port town of Newport, Oregon in an apartment that overlooked the harbor, complete with NOAA ships, fishing boats and dozens of noisy sea lions on the rocks to watch (and listen to 24/7).

Remy - 2 Years - Newport, Oregon (29 Sept. 2014)
While being the ripe young age of two might signify adulthood with many other dogs, Griffs maintain at least some of their gonzo puppy energy and attitude well after two. It's just part of their charm. Remy is no exception. He still has that teenage-puppy joie de vivre, that unbridled enthusiasm for all things and a playful spirit that, I hope, will never leave him.

In terms of the big things, though, he really has matured into a nice, adult dog. (Note: I am only half-jokingly knocking on wood as I type this, because making the following types of statements in the past has seemed to almost invite trouble...)

I'm pleased to report that, at this point in his young life, Remy is pretty darned trustworthy. He doesn't counter surf (thank heavens). He doesn't mess up the furniture (though I do believe, based on the mysteriously rumpled afghan and warm dent in the pillow, that he occasionally gets up on the "invitation only" sofa while we're gone...).

He no longer chews on shoes. We made an early attempt (10 mos. old) at giving him freedom to roam about the house while we were gone for short periods. We had left him inside while we were out working in the garden or on a short trip to the store and he managed to stay out of trouble, so we began to trust him. Let is suffice to say, with the humans having lost the heels and insoles on several favorite pairs of shoes and Remy having major abdominal surgery to remove an 18" long rope toy that was lodged in his gut (a discarded rope toy he pulled from a wastebasket I might add), we decided he wasn't ready for that level of responsibility.  Remy spent a few more months being crated every time we left the house.

Eventually we mustered up the courage to try again for longer and longer periods and, I'm happy to report, he has proven himself to be very trustworthy. No more chewed shoes or missing toys. No evidence of wastebasket surfing either. He doesn't like it when we go without him, I'm sure, but he gets it. When we start putting on our shoes he gets all waggly and hopeful. Then we turn on the music or the TV and puts on his best hang-dog look, walks over to the rug and lies down, usually with a big sigh. And every time we come home he greets us with that full body wag and look of pure joy.

He is learning patience. He waits for the "go" sign before rushing out the door (usually) and before diving into his food bowl (always). He doesn't jump on people (ok, there's the occasional overly-enthusiastic greeting, but he seems to know the difference between people he can jump on and people who would be horrified by such an act).  He treats my 88-year-old mother like the queen of the house. While he bounds through rooms on window deer patrol, at times running into us and stepping on our feet, with Mom he slows down and gives her space. And when she's home alone with the dogs, Kirby keeps watch by the door while Remy lays at her feet like a protector.

There's more to work on, for sure. Like consistent recall (particularly at the beach). But more on that later.  In honor of Remy's second birthday, I just want to express how very proud I am of the wonderful, responsible dog he is growing up to be!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Beach is the Best

Yesterday we went to the beach. This wasn't any ordinary trip to the beach, it was our almost-annual beach trip with some friends, two of whom are Canadians who make it a priority to visit Oregon's beautiful beaches on every trip out here.

Remy and Kirby haven't been to the beach for a while. Between work on weekdays and the whole process of packing up the final items at our former house and getting it ready to sell, we just haven't been feeling like we could take a day off for a beach trip. That's a shame. Oregon's beaches are so lovely in the summertime. They're also filled with people. So we all picked a Tuesday, hoping it would offer that perfect mix of being able to take a day off and getting the weekend tourists out of the picture.

Great strategy. We left early and when we got to Indian Beach there weren't very many people there and no other dogs. It was mostly us, a handful of intrepid early risers and a bunch of surfers taking advantage of yesterday's big waves.

After making sure there were no major obstacles to us removing the leashes, we let the dogs off. Remy, Kirby and our friends' dog Vito took off in fits of joy, chasing after thrown balls, running through the surf (though Kirby, being the terrier-type he is, wouldn't go in past his knees).

Remy's first definitive act at the beach was to storm a crumbling sand castle and claim it as his own.

Then Remy noticed something...dark, human figures bobbing on the top of the waves a ways from shore. Now THIS was interesting. (We usually go to long beaches without a lot of big waves, so he had never seen surfers before.) Remy had to go investigate. He launched himself into the surf and swam out, braving the breakers, to greet the surfers.

Fortunately, the first surfers he came upon were dog-friendly and they gave him a happy greeting. Satisfied, he decided surfers were OK and he could leave them to their business. He proceeded to body surf his way back through the waves and rejoined our group. He spent the rest of the morning fetching bumpers and balls, approaching friendly people and attempting to climb barnacle-covered rocks (not cool). I think he learned that lesson pretty quickly and amazingly his paws, now sufficiently calloused, didn't seem much worse for the wear.

What was really fun was seeing just how much in common Remy, a young adult Griff, had in common with our friend Emerson, who is a tall, athletic 16-year-old. I swear, those two were like twin brothers of different species. They both had no problem braving the cold Pacific waters and spent most of the day running around, tumbling in the surf and climbing things.

At one point Remy caught sight of some small children walking up the beach with their parents. Putting on his full body wag, he approached them (Remy loves children and becomes gleeful at the sight of them or the sound of children playing.) Unfortunately, the parents were NOT friendly. They grabbed the kids and hid them behind their legs and started shooing Remy away before he even had a chance to approach the cute little child in the pink hoodie and her big brother. Remy had a toy in his mouth that, I'm sure, he intended to show the little girl in the pink hoodie, but instead, recognizing he wasn't wanted (this is progress) he gave a muffled bark and turned away.

Editorial Pause: I'm sure those people had their reasons. Perhaps the parents had had bad encounters with dogs on beaches before. I'm sure a lot of people do. I get that. But there's always a little piece of me that becomes sad when I see parents instilling fear and keeping their children from having any sort of healthy relationship with dogs. Those kids will encounter dogs their entire lives and mommy won't be there to protect them. I just hope they get over their parents some day. There are certainly unfriendly dogs in the world. But when a happy, scruffy Griff comes at you with a full body wag and a big orange toy in his mouth, that should be your cue that this dog's most likely OK. The way I see it, teaching kids that ALL dogs are scary probably isn't a wise thing if you want your children to grow into well-adjusted adults.

In any case, I have to say, I was proud of Remy for recognizing that not all people want wags and sloppy dog kisses and friendly toy-sharing. He's finally old enough to understand that. And I feel a lot better about taking him to the beach now.

I'm focusing on Remy, as Kirby is an experienced beach dog. Kirby was, of course, a little herder the whole time. At one point I had to turn back to go pick up a poopy bag I had set down and, seeing that I was leaving the pack, Kirby had to accompany me and try to guide me back to safety. He succeeded. Job done. It was a good day for Kirby.

Vito, a Lagotto (Italian Water Dog) was in heaven, of course, and he and Remy had a great time playing in the surf, stealing each other's toys and getting as wet and sandy as caninely possible.

Yes, it was a good day all around. And the people had fun too.

Monday, July 28, 2014

On Gluten and Grain Intolerance

Back in 2006, after battling with allergies, skin problems and recurrent ear infections for seven years, we took our Griff, Baxter, off of ALL grain. He lived another six happy, healthy years without a single skin allergy problem or ear infection. Not one.

So we started our little dog, Kirby, on grain-free dog food the day we rescued him from the shelter; and our Griff Remy, now 2 months shy of 2 years old, has been grain-free from the day we brought him home as well. Remy has never shown any signs of allergy to anything, and we don't know if the grain-free food has anything to do with it, but we're not taking any chances. He's a healthy pup.

When Dr. Pema (the holistic vet) explained to me that dogs didn't evolve to be able to digest grain effectively, it made perfect sense. I even wrote an article about it for The Polishing Stone, a wonderful (but sadly now out-of-print) magazine. Sure, dogs are omnivores who seem to be able to eat just about anything, but they're primarily meat eaters and historically they got their grain pre-digested in the guts of the animals they ate. Industrially-processed food didn't enter into the equation until fairly recently, and grain makes a great (and cheap) filler.

So, after all this, I'm not sure why I didn't really give much thought to grain's effects on people. That is, not until recently, as more and more of my friends and colleagues started going "gluten free." Yes, I live in Portland, and the gluten-free craze has risen to the level of being a Portlandia send up. I fully admit I was one of those people who believed that a certain percentage of those "gluten-free" people had real problems and the rest were just jumping on the bandwagon. The fad would soon be over and everyone would find some other food to vilify. But the more I read about gluten and grain issues in people, the more I'm realizing there actually is a lot more to it. The thing is, when people get off wheat and other gluten grains, many, if not most, of them feel better. There are multiple reasons for this. But, nonetheless, I thought I'd try it and see what happened.

It DID make a significant difference in a number of ways. I'll spare you the details, but let it suffice to say I feel a lot better. This article by Dr. Mark Hyman explains a lot about why grains -- particularly wheat -- are making many of us unwell and we don't even realize to what extent. Most importantly, the wheat we (and our dogs) are eating today is NOT the wheat of our ancestors.

"This is not the wheat your great-grandmother used to bake her bread.  It is FrankenWheat – a scientifically engineered food product developed in the last 50 years...Not only does this dwarf, FrankenWheat, contain the super starch, but it also contains super gluten which is much more likely to create inflammation in the body. And in addition to a host of inflammatory and chronic diseases caused by gluten, it causes obesity and diabetes."
 I wish I hadn't noticed significant things when I got off gluten. I LOVE bread. I love many, many things that involve flour (which, in our culture, is just about everything). I wish it were all in my head or that I was just on some fad diet. But the truth is, I, like Baxter, seem to have some pretty obvious allergic reactions when I eat gluten-y, wheat-y foods and all of those reactions go away when I stop eating them.

I would cry. But it's hard to get too bummed out when I feel so much better. I will, for a while, lament the loss of wheat and some of my other favorite grains. I may try to have it narrowed down a bit to see if maybe, just maybe, I can eat some rye or barley or other good grains that make those micro-brews I love.

For now, though, I just have one more thing in common with the dogs...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Kirby Likes Gromit

Last night we dug out our DVD of Wallace & Gromit for a little light entertainment. Remy and Kirby were doing their usual evening ritual -- a little wrestling, then settling down with their chew toys. Suddenly, when Gromit (who, in case you aren't familiar with the British claymation-style animated series, is the dog) appeared on the screen, Kirby stopped what he was doing and ran up to the television. He sat in front of the TV and barked whenever Gromit appeared on the screen (this is what he does when he sees real dogs on television -- he totally ignores the people, but the second a dog comes on screen he runs over and starts barking at it).

I think what surprised me about this is that Gromit is a very stylized dog. He doesn't have a lot of the features of a real dog. He doesn't bark. He reads the newspaper and walks on two legs (sometimes) and expresses himself mostly through his eyebrows. Yet Kirby unmistakeably recognized this clay figure as a dog. He didn't bark at the clay people. He didn't bark at any of the other animals. Just Gromit.

This got me to thinking about dog facial recognition. What makes a dog a dog to another dog? I always figured it was a combination of how they look and how they smell and sound. Most dogs we see on television are barking or panting or otherwise making noise. In this case the only clues were the face and ear shape, big humanlike eyes and a round black nose.

Gromit may act like a person, but, according to Kirby, he is most definitely a dog.

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 risks 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.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On Spiderman and Being a Big Boy

"With great power comes great responsibility." 
-- Spiderman's Uncle Ben

The cool/interesting/challenging thing about having a young adult Griff is that their bodies mature long before their brains understand how to use all of the strength and speed.

For us, the hard part about getting a puppy (Remy) after having a senior dog (Baxter) who knew the ways of the world was suddenly having a big dog that is fairly clueless and hell-bent on figuring things out, sometimes the hard way. The fun part about watching Remy mature is watching him figure things out and seeing those ah-ha moments when he finally gets something.

Remy is suddenly "getting it" on many fronts. For starters - he now knows that all humans are not to be treated the same way. When we first moved my mother in with us, Remy didn't understand that he can't ricochet off of an 87-year-old the way he does the younger members of the family (not that he should be ricocheting off of anyone, but if you have a teenage Griff or Labrador or Golden Retriever or any other big, active, super-friendly dog, you know what I mean). Now Remy doesn't (usually) jump on us, but he will do the "full body wag and lean" with such fervor he practically knocks us over. Yet he has a whole different standard of behavior with my mom. With her, he approaches enthusiastically but gently. He wags in front of her and puts his big head under her hand for a pat. Wow. He figured that out all by himself. And, as a result, he and my mom have bonded, big time.

This whole "getting it" thing will be a theme of blogs to come. I just felt like sharing what a joy it is to see Remy figuring things out for himself. While I love puppies, and I'm sure I will miss that puppy energy and long for another puppy some day, right now it's wonderful to see what a lovely adult dog Remy is growing into every day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Invisible Fence - Part Trois

Today the leashes came off. Well, Kirby's leash has been off for a week, but Remy's been dragging a fluorescent orange one around...just in case. The Invisible Fence trainer came for our fourth and final session with the dogs and Remy and Kirby were put to the test. Actually, the big tests came BEFORE the trainer got here.  A couple of days ago, our friends brought over their adorable Lagotto, Vito, who does not have a collar for the Invisible Fence. Vito is pretty trustworthy when it comes to sticking around his people, so they let him off leash to play with Remy and Kirby. The dogs stayed inside the flags and played. But at one point, Vito wandered outside the flags. Remy and Kirby ran along with him up to the flags and stopped, letting Vito wander by himself in the orchard.

This was a major deal for our guys. Trust me on this.

Earlier today, before the trainer arrived, my husband was out with the dogs, initially on leash, when a deer went bounding by. Remy caught sight of it and was immediately at attention. In a bold move, Jamie let the leash go and Remy ran straight toward the deer but stopped at the Invisible Fence and just watched as the deer continued bouncing down the field.

YES!  This thing really appears to work.

Test #3 (also before the trainer arrived)... Remy was out in the yard playing with his new ball. Our front yard is on a bit of a slope and at one point Remy dropped the ball and it began to roll downhill toward the flags. In a heated panic, Remy ran for the ball, retrieving it just as it was crossing the line, and quickly pulled it back into the yard. He probably got a little correction out of the deal, but he saved the ball and definitely seems to get the "go back into the yard where it doesn't sting my neck" message.

So the trainer arrived about an hour later. Leash off this time. As if on cue, another deer trotted by, but Remy was so busy wrestling with Kirby we couldn't get him to pay attention to the deer. Priorities, man! The trainer finally managed to call him over, but Remy was so busy waggling at the trainer, he totally missed the deer, which was now bounding off down the field. Kirby, who was shaking the grass off after the aforementioned wrestling match, also missed it entirely.

I had a business call to attend to, so I left my husband and the trainer to do most of today's session with the dogs. They walked all over the property, outside the "fence," up the driveway and all the places Remy and Kirby love to go that are outside the flags. The boyos stayed inside. Whining, but inside.

The computer readout on the collars said they had "tested" the boundaries a couple dozen times each (that includes both the the outside perimeter with the flags and the inside unit, which is about half the correction level of the outside unit and now keeps the dogs away from the cooking area in the kitchen...). This is OK and normal, says the trainer. They must test it to hear the tone and make the associations with what happens if they don't heed the warning.

Frankly, I was a little surprised at how often Kirby tested the system. He appears to stick with us wherever we go and never gets close to the flags outside. But being the little dog vacuum that he is, I'm guessing that when no one is around Kirby's probably scanning for crumbs in the kitchen and setting off his collar when he just can't resist that little bit of something just on the other side of the boundary...

So what's next?  Well, the trainer made the final adjustments to the collar settings, reminded us about how to maintain the system and ensure the batteries are always working. Voila, we're done. The trainer felt confident that Remy and Kirby know the rules and are choosing to obey them.

Will I ever feel 100% confident in a fence I cannot see?  Probably not. But knowing the dogs have faced some of their greatest temptations and still stayed behind the fence helps me get 98% there. Honestly, I can't say I would trust a physical fence 100%. Maybe even less than 98%, knowing that if there's an obstacle, both Remy and Kirby have the brains and ability to figure out how to either get over it or under it.

In any case, they won't be left out there unattended. As it is, I have to say it is wonderful  to see the dogs running around our property. They just look so happy to be out there and to have that freedom to roam in places they've been looking at from the end of a leash for so long.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Griffology: Scruffy Dogs Go Social

I think it's kind of interesting that now I've picked up my blogging again, I suddenly find that a single social media post just isn't enough to say what I want to say. For a while, I think Facebook made it easier for me not to blog when I felt compelled to say something. I'd just dash off a couple of lines and toss in a picture, then spend far too much time reading about everyone else. Now, suddenly, a couple of lines of "all about me and mine" just doesn't feel like I'll indulge myself here. Yet, I know I'll still spend far too much time reading about everyone else on Facebook.

At least I have a creative outlet. This is what I'm telling myself.

I know, Facebook is not a substitute for getting out in your community and doing things with friends, in person. But I have to say, the community of scruffy-dog-loving Wirehaired Pointing Griffon aficionados in the Facebook group "Griffology" has become one of my communities too. This is a place I go when I'm in a dog-talkin' mood. I'm sure my nearby, in-person friends would tire altogether too soon as I wax nostalgic about our first Griff, Baxter, and what a perfect canine he was. Or go off on a tangent about how funny our little dog Kirby is when he gets all Napoleon on our spirited young Griff, Remy. I could speak for hours on subjects like physical fencing vs invisible fencing, whether e-collars are a good idea and the health benefits of grain-free dog food.

Where some of my in-person friends' eyes would glaze over, my Griffology friends share these questions and many more. We share answers and personal experiences, joyful pictures of new puppies, tearful tributes to those Griffs who have left this world. We post lots of funny pics, artistic pics, "caught in the act" videos and throwback Thursday memories. We post and comment (and comment and comment) about how we overcome the challenges of raising and living with these highly intelligent, strong, athletic and sometimes crafty canines.

This is my go-to group for all things Griff. The founder even sells Griff swag from time to time (my "Life is short, play with your Griff" T-shirt is one of my favorites...even though a friend's Griff puppy bit a hole in it the first time I wore it). When I joined this community nearly two years ago there were a less than two hundred members. As of today, it has nearly 1800 members (1798 to be exact) from all over the world. I didn't think there were that many people on the planet who even knew what a Griff was!

(I'll talk about the yin/yang of this breed growing in popularity another time.) For now, I just want to say to all of my Griffology friends: thank you for being such a wonderful, funny, open and sharing community. Your advice has been valuable and your Griff pictures always make me smile. I have found a group of scruffy-dog-loving kindred spirits and the far-too-much time I spend with you is (almost) never wasted!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Joy of Dirt

I don't often use the word "joy" and the word "dirt" in the same sentence. If Remy and Kirby could write a blog, I'm sure they would use the terms often and with great gusto. The dogs have a completely different relationship with dirt than I do. They love to run in it, roll in it, dig in it and unabashedly eat things that live on it and in it.

I, however, have always had very mixed feelings about dirt. As a child growing up in Iowa I was fascinated by all the critters that lived in the rich, black soil of our yard. I dug up earthworms for fishing. I made mud pies. I buried things and discovered things buried by children past. My parents allowed me to run around barefoot in the grass (something for which I am eternally grateful).  I feel sad for children who never get to take their shoes off and sink their toes into the mud.

But for all of my family's outdoor appreciation of dirt, once inside, dirt was the enemy. My mom (bless her) heeded the advice of the day, which was to keep everything in the house spotlessly clean. After being in the workforce for nearly 20 years, she became a stay-at-home mom and took on the job of housework like a professional. Bleach. Spic-and-Span. Mr. Clean. Our floors were so clean I could eat off of them (and occasionally did).

But now, as an adult, (and much to my mother's chagrin I'm sure) I do not have the wherewithal (or the time) to maintain the primo level of dirt-and-dust-free-ness I grew up with. Dirt happens. It's entropy. And I prefer environmentally-friendly cleaning products that, let's face it, don't quite annihilate the dirt like Mr. Clean did (he should have been called Commando Clean). In any case, that doesn't stop me from feeling some guilt around the level of dust, dirt and clutter in our house at present, particularly since Mom now lives with us and has to put up with it. But it does make me wonder...

How much dirt is OK?  Now that we're living on a little farm and looking forward to growing a lot of our own food organically, I am developing a whole new relationship with dirt. In particular, the article, "The Surprising Healing Qualities of Dirt" by Daphne Miller, MD made me rethink the value of dirt as a critical element of our health and well-being. I recently saw Dr. Miller give an excellent presentation on this very subject at the Institute for Functional Medicine annual conference, where more than a few MD's jaws dropped at some of her assertions.

Miller claims (with some very interesting and credible evidence to back it up) that "soil teeming with a wide diversity of life (especially bacteria, fungi, and nematodes) is more likely to produce nutrient-dense food" and that soil microbes and other farm microbes may have a protective effect against allergic diseases. She cites data that offers new explanations for the so-called “farm effect” -- that children who grow up on farms and in rural environments tend to have fewer allergies. This was previously thought to be explained by early life exposure to a variety of microbes that dampened the allergic response of our adaptive immune system. But it may be more complicated (and more significant) than that. Now, she says, through the science of metagenomics (through which we can sequence the DNA of an entire microbiome) "we’re beginning to connect the dots and we’re discovering that genetic swaps can take place between our microbiome and the outside world—particularly the places where our food is grown." This may, in effect, help foster the growth of a more diverse and protective microbiome in our gut -- that's right, our gut -- which helps us better digest the nutrients from our food and fight off pathogens.


This has huge implications for the health of our species (and many others). If we continue to pour Roundup and other pesticides on our yards and gardens and farm fields, these chemicals will continue to decrease the microbial diversity of our soil and, in turn, end up decreasing the nutritional value of our food. And she cites work being done by microbiologists at Washington University in St. Louis who have "recently noted that soil bacteria exposed to antibiotics and other chemicals can develop antibiotic resistant genes which... can be transferred to our microbiome, turning otherwise benign resident bacteria into 'superbugs.'”

Wow again.

Maybe the dogs have it right. At least I'm comforted when I turn over a rock in our yard and see a whole city of visible critters living beneath it. I'm hoping this means that a lot more invisible microbes -- the good ones that make our apples and plums and kale have more nutritional value -- are down there too.

Invisible Fence - Part Deux (Doh!)

We've had a couple of weeks to get used to the Invisible Fence we had installed around a part of our property and today was our second visit from the trainer. We haven't been brave enough to let our dogs off leash in the yard, but we have been walking around the perimeter with them, letting them test the tone/buzz if they saw something they wanted on the other side of the flags. For the most part, they've been great about it. But there were a couple of moments...

One day when we had the dogs out to do their business, Kirby insisted on peeing on the other side of the flag. (Apparently whatever he smelled over there was just too good NOT to pee on.) He crossed the line and trembled as he proceeded to lift his leg. My husband thought maybe the collar wasn't working so he stuck his finger under it and it WAS working. Apparently Kirby just has an iron will and a high threshold of tolerance for electricity pulsing on his neck. Of course, because Kirby did it, Remy had to go pee on top of Kirby's and he proceeded to do exactly the same thing. His neck was twitching. Of course, both leg-lifting sessions were cut short as we brought them back inside, but it did make us wonder if the settings were high enough.

Despite the appearance of a high tolerance, Kirby did seem to get the message, because he hasn't gone within 5 feet of the flags ever since.  Remy got his next "test" a few days later when my husband was walking him around the yard and a deer went bolting by just outside the flags. Remy ran up to the flags and stopped. Amazing.  Could the message be getting through?

We also had the indoor unit blocking off a small area inside the kitchen doorway. Both dogs "tested" this a bit more often, but after a few days Remy just walked outside the flags whether he had his collar on or not and Kirby avoided that doorway altogether. (This unit is now residing under our kitchen island to keep the dogs away from the food prep area.)

This morning the trainer came back out and plugged each of the dogs' collars into his computer, which tells him how often each dog "tested" the boundaries, either inside or outside. Kirby tested a handful of times. Remy's tests ran into double digits. (He is much more adventuresome than Kirby and also in that young adult "I'm testing my boundaries every day with you" phase anyway.) So I was a little nervous when the trainer said it was time to let go of the leashes outside and see what they'll do.

As the trainer and I walked around the yard, the dogs both enjoyed a happy romp (and a couple of wrestling matches) dragging their leashes behind them. Kirby trotted along and avoided the fence line entirely. He didn't even stop at his "pee through the pain" spot. (Methinks he learned a valuable lesson with that incident.) Remy did well until we decided to test him by going outside the flags. The trainer and I turned the other way and walked up the driveway, glancing back and being careful to avoid eye contact with the dogs (you don't want to call them over the line). Both dogs stopped at the flags. Great!

Then we walked around behind the big barn and up toward the neighbor's house (the one Remy runs to whenever he gets out...seeking Susie, the little chihuahua/dachshund who lives there). Suddenly Remy broke through. We could hear him yelping as he ran toward Susie's house, but he was not deterred and he timed-out the collar (the system is designed to give a continuous buzz after the dog breaks through, which turns off when the dog comes back inside. But the buzz does have a time limit.) The trainer finally caught Remy and brought him back. Time to up the settings.

I was worried that we had just taught Remy he could break through and eventually the collar would turn off. The trainer wasn't overly concerned (I guess this happens) but said he didn't want to leave the training on a down note and he stayed a little beyond his time to re-do that lesson. He reset Remy's collar up another notch and we went back out again and moseyed around the yard a bit more.

All was well, the dogs kept to the boundaries. Eventually we tried going outside the perimeter again. At first Remy howled from behind the line because he wanted to go with us. Finally he couldn't stand it anymore and he broke through again, this time, though, he stopped about 15 feet from the invisible fence and started yelping. The trainer quickly grabbed his leash and brought Remy back inside the boundary, which immediately made the pain stop. It was at this point I think Remy experienced an "ah ha" moment. (I think he had shifted from the Bart Simpson "bzz-ow-bzz-ow-bzz-ow" approach to more of a "Doh!" moment in the Homer Simpson tradition.*)

Back inside the perimeter we lavished Remy with praise for his return. (Despite the fence having a negative/corrective aspect to the training, the company's training methods use positive rewards when the dogs avoid the fence or turn back away from it.) Treats were given for extra reinforcement and everyone seemed happy to just stay inside the invisible fence for a while.

Our next (and hopefully final) training session is next Tuesday. In the meantime, our assignment is to let the dogs run around the yard -- supervised -- dragging leashes so we can stop them should another break through occur. The trainer seemed pretty confident it wouldn't. He does this all day and he said he recognized from Remy's behavior that he "got it." That doesn't mean he won't try again -- he might try at another spot in the yard -- but he's much less likely to want to go through that again. On the next visit we'll do the final tuning on the collar settings and then, hopefully, we're good to go.

Or stay, as it were.

* For the record, I do think Remy is smarter than Homer Simpson. :-)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Getting Buzzed

No, this is not about the very special G&T my husband just brought me to celebrate the close of my Friday afternoon workday (although I have to say the Rogue Pink Spruce Gin and Fever Tree tonic does make a mighty nice wind-down to a long week...)

This is about keeping our dogs in our yard. As some of my readers know, we are in the process of moving to a country home. That sounds so hoity-toity. Really, we are in the process of moving to three acres of really beautiful land with a funky, old 1930s money-pit-but-livable house sitting on it. At least my office has a nice view.

ANYWAY I digress. The yard surrounding the house is a huge improvement over the 2 feet of owned land and unfenceable common areas around the townhome we've been living in for the past several years. The dogs, who have been doing their business outside on leashed walks, were particularly glad to see the acres of tall grass, fruit trees and deer frolicking (yes, they frolic here frequently, look in the windows and drive the dogs insane).

Trouble with this lovely country home is that while there isn't much traffic on the gravel road just across from the property, the small amount of traffic that does go down that road is going downhill, usually very fast, and not looking for children or dogs. (Which, I'm sure, worries the two families just down the road from us who have small children too...) Unless we want our dogs chasing deer into the path of a speeding truck, this means fencing an un-fenced property.

We identified an area around the back of the house to fence-in. But the best part of the yard, the area where we are most often wanting to work in the garden or have a picnic with a pretty view, is an area that would be spoiled by putting up a fence. After all, it is the pretty flow of the land that made us fall in love with this place. The dogs want to be where WE are, not banished to the back yard if we're not out there. And besides, paying someone to fence that much land is pretty expensive.

So we started investigating options for underground fencing. You know, the electric kind where the dogs wear little collars that keep them from crossing the invisible line where you want the fence to be by giving them a tone and an "electrical stimulation" when they cross the fence line. I had some reservations about the whole "electrical stimulation" thing. Is it just a shock with a fancy name? (I am, after all, a PR professional, and have a pretty good "spin" detector.) I needed to learn more.

We looked at four brands:  SportDog (definitely the favorite among DIY types who have sporting dogs), PetSafe (the one you see at pet stores everywhere, also a DIY option), Innotek (another DIY option with a dual system that includes a remote trainer) and Invisible Fence (the brand that started it all and the one that was recommended highly by Remy's breeder who is also a veterinarian).  Here are a few of the pros and cons as we saw them:

DIY Brand - PROS:
  • Less expensive than professionally-installed systems. This is a huge PRO.
  • Readily available, just buy it and install it on your own time. (You have to train the dogs yourself, but there are a lot of online resources to help.)
  • Uses the standard technology that has been proven over years of use.
DIY Brands - CONS:
  • Those who have never used electronic collars with their dogs are prone to mistakes -- not setting the system right and the dogs get through or setting the system too high and thus over-stimulating the dogs.
  • If you don't do it properly and the system breaks down anywhere, the dogs are roaming free and there is no one to call.
  • Once a dog crosses the boundary (some dogs will just grit their teeth and run through if there's something they really want on the other side) they are now outside and cannot get back in without getting the "stimulation" again. That's a disincentive to come home.
While I really appreciated the wallet-friendly price point, which was in the $300-$600 range, I wasn't particularly comfortable with the risks of the DIY systems nor was I confident in my ability to adequately train the dogs to stay inside. Just letting them out the door and trusting the system was a leap I wasn't quite comfortable with. Also, I knew that we have a zillion projects to do and it could be months before the installation would get done.

Invisible Fence - PROS:
  • The system is professionally installed. This saves time and guarantees the work gets done. It also means someone is accountable for the proper installation of the system. In the world of software, where I often work, there is a term "one throat to choke" when something goes wrong. In this case, it's not the dog, it's the company. They not only do all the work, they guarantee their system and their training methods and keep coming out until it all works.
  • They send out professional trainers for at least 3 sessions to work with your dogs, starting at the lowest possible "stimulation" setting and working up so your dog never gets more stimulation than is needed. (This also gives you the opportunity to "stimulate" yourself and see how it feels, which seems like a good idea.)
  • They have a newer technology that remains ON after the dog crosses the boundary and turns OFF when the dog comes back in. This is an incentive for the dog to return and not just keep running after that deer. (Caveat: there is a time limit on the stimulation, but it can be set by the trainer.)
Invisible Fence - CONS:
  • Price. Yes, it definitely costs more to have someone else come out and dig a trench around your property and install a continuous wire and a wall-mounted control unit. In fact, it can be anywhere from 3-4 times more expensive than the DIY systems, depending on the size of your property. Maybe more. But it is still less than fencing the same amount of property with a nice fence.
  • You don't get to buy it and install it the same day. After the installation, they ask that you not let your dogs out with the invisible fencing alone until they have completed 2-3 more training sessions (you get a couple of sessions on the day they install it). The training sessions are included in the price and are sometimes a week or two apart and based on the trainer's availability. (I should note that even though the DIY products can be installed in a day, it is recommended that you take a couple of weeks to train your dog to the system -- but it's on your time schedule. If you were to hire a trainer with a DIY system, the time and cost would start getting closer.) Either way, it's not speedy, but it does help ensure that your dogs are REALLY READY before you send them out to run free with an invisible fence around them. 
  • Strangers dig trenches around your yard. This I don't mind. We've had so many strangers (contractors) in our house lately I'm getting used to it.
You can probably tell from this that we ended up going with the Invisible Fence brand. We just had it installed this week. As an added plus, the system came with an indoor transmitter that we can use in the house (no extra cost) to keep the dogs off anything within a 1 to 6-foot radius of the transmitter. The trainers use this to train the dogs to avoid the flags, so once they get outside, they know that a flag means a boundary.

Based on our first training sessions, it does seem to work. In the future, I know the indoor unit will be helpful in keeping the dogs away from areas we don't want them to go into (which, given the construction going on around our house, is hugely helpful). We joked about just handing it to certain house guests who don't like dogs near them and strapping it to Kirby to keep Remy from jumping on him. 

As for the outside system, we have homework. The first on-leash training session was remarkably productive in teaching the dogs where the boundaries are. Now our job is to walk the dogs around the perimeter of the yard, where the flags indicate the boundary, to get them used to the tone and "stimulation" each time they cross over a flag. After just a day, the dogs already avoid the flags and if they stick their heads across the line, they immediately make a U-turn and come back in. This looks promising.

As for the "stimulation?" I tried it on myself at the same level as the dogs were set. It felt almost exactly like the electrical stimulation I had received for a shoulder injury at the chiropractor and the acupuncturist. Slightly more than touching a TV, slightly less than the shock from shuffling my feet on the carpet and touching something. But it was, definitely, enough to get my attention. And, apparently, that's true for the dogs as well.

I'll keep you posted on the progress!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Living Vicariously

In a meeting with some of my colleagues today I let it slip out that I used to be a dog blogger. That sounded strange. Used to be. But what else could I say? It has been a long time since I've updated this, and you know it's bad when the first paragraph of every new blog entry says something about having not updated the blog in forever. Continuing that theme...

The reason my dog blogger identity came out is because two of the people I work with have recently brought home new a Chocolate Lab and the other a German Shepherd. Looking at their adorable puppy pictures I get a twinge of longing. There is nothing quite like the experience of getting a puppy. They are 24/7 entertainment. They fill your life with cuteness and playfulness and puppy breath. They chew on your hands, wash your face and work their way into your heart. And that goes both ways. Dogs make us feel good and scientific studies show they even make us healthier.

We all know that raising a puppy is no picnic. It's not for the faint-hearted or for those who desire a clean, chaos-free environment. Still, it is so worth every "accident," every chewed shoe and every sleep-deprived night to get to that point where your dog is just such an integral part of your daily life you can't imagine your life without him or her.

I only wish dogs lived longer. But in the relatively short time they are with us, they make our lives better. I wouldn't trade those 13 years with Baxter for anything.

So...back to puppies. Despite my ability to wax on about the joys of getting a puppy, I'm in no hurry to add a third dog to our household. (I came close with a senior Griff in rescue last month...but I soon realized that putting that dear old dog in a house with a year-and-a-half old gonzo Griff and a little Napoleon dog who thinks HE rules the roost, might not be the calm, quiet retirement the old dog deserved.)

Besides, Remy still has enough puppy energy for me at the moment. He is, however, growing up fast. He sleeps through the night and seems content to lie at our feet while we watch movies in the evening. Remy and Kirby still wrestle, but now it's mutual (usually). We don't worry about the shoes getting chewed up anymore. And now, every so often, Remy will sit and stare into my eyes for a long time, as if he's trying to read my mind. That's something grown-up Griffs do.

The other day Remy and I were sharing one of those calm, focused moments and I quietly said to him: "Remy, go get your Kong and bring it to Jennifer."  I could see the thoughts racing behind his eyes for a few seconds. Then he stood up, turned around, walked into the next room (past his other toys), went straight to the Kong, picked it up and brought it to me.

Eureka! That was definitely a grown-up dog moment.

I look forward to a lot more of those moments. I look forward to the calm of a home with two adult dogs in it. And I wish my colleagues all the joy and adventure that comes with raising their puppies.

I will, of course, demand puppy pictures on a regular basis...