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. :-)