Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Northeastern Regional Vice-Siegerin V Brianne vom hohlen Huegel, SchH 1, Kkl 1 Lbz 'a'
July 18, 2003 - May 20, 2013

Everyone handles it differently. Some swear off pets, some quickly buy a "replacement," some grieve deeply and take years to feel ready for another, some block or otherwise avoid processing the emotional aftermath of a companion's loss. I suppose procrastination applies to emotions as well as to actions, and in my case I think that lands me fairly squarely in the "avoider" column. Star, Gwydion, Sierra, Celti, Ginny, Jessie and so many others...gone years or decades. Brianne joined them four weeks ago, and her nobility and graciousness of spirit importune me to overcome my avoidance, to face and feel this loss. This is not a dog whose passing should go unremarked.

And yet... And yet, there is nothing, really, to be said. Those who have loved and been loved by a dog know the deep, rending pain of their absence. Of looking for those brown eyes in the familiar places, of glancing, seconds after having just done so, at the bean bag bed, expecting, yet again, to see the eyebrows raise and the tail thump in acknowledgement of our bond. Of grabbing the leash and, though (in my case) a half dozen others may leap and frolic and chortle, of listening in vain for a certain joyous yelp that always drowned out the others. It does not matter how many others vie for my attention, anxious to join me on car rides and hikes. Each interaction is cherished, but they are not Brianne.

Brianne, the epitome of female strength and assurance. Tolerant and wise mother, fierce protector, sane and reliable ambassador to children, uncanny in her ministrations of teeth or tongue as the situation warranted. Brianne, largest of my girls, who I presciently brought along on an emergency trip to the vet clinic together with a kennel mate who ended up needing a transfusion...without hesitation she hopped calmly on the exam table, and in response to my request she raised her head for the vet to find her jugular, never flinching as a brilliant crimson stream pulsed into a bottle. She did not question, had no expectation of reward. She trusted me, sure that no harm would befall her in complying with my direction. Her zest for living was transcendent, buoying up anyone with whom she had interactions, and in her kennel mate's case, literally life-saving.

And as that zest subsided over the past year I procrastinated, making a false trip to the vet months ago, bringing her back home with the stubborn rationalization that the spark in her eye and her alertness justified the indignities of her condition. Finally, though, even a practiced procrastinator could no longer postpone the decision I hoped would not be mine. Her bark, once a roar, was a bare whisper. She who would play tug and fetch all day couldn't even help me help her outside. She felt shame over loss of body function, in spite of my attempts to assure her. And true to her character, ultimately it was she who would assure me. Lying once again on the exam table, this time after being stretchered in, those clear, all-knowing eyes never wavered from mine as the vet found a vein in her hind leg, and while every fiber of my being screamed there's more time, she bathed my chin and cheeks in moist velvet, a caress of love and trust of which I shall ever aspire to be worthy.

Brianne's legacy may, finally, be my key to letting go of the past. Living here and now, aware that there is never more time, there is only this time. And living it, as she always did, to the full measure of each moment. Beim Spielen sein, my friend Brianne.

Friday, May 3, 2013

V Elatha vom hohlen Huegel, SchH 2, Kkl 1 'a'

Much as a dear old friend's face still reflects in their friends' eyes with overtones of the person from years ago, their youthfully sparkling eyes and impish grin more apparent to your eyes than the wrinkles, bulges, and bags that evince the ravages of time, so, too, does my dog Ella still, to my eyes, look like the vigorous partner she's always been. Yet, there's no denying that's no pup in the photo. Wise, certainly, and with a self-possessed contentment, but gray, scarred, and unmistakably tired. Denial is a powerful psychological tool, and I've been wielding it with gusto. I haven't entirely accepted Star's departure, now gone five years, or Stano's, gone last year, and I'm going to be losing Brianne soon...so, Ella, dear one, is burdened with my not-entirely unconscious wish for her immortality. Unfortunately, that means my expectations of her are more appropriately heaped on a much younger dog.

(Perhaps there's a pattern here...what do I ask of myself? So why should I treat the dog any differently?)

Several people have mentioned recently that they've looked in vain back through the archives of this blog to find more detailed stories about Ella's and my adventures on the "walk-about." They've requested details about specific hikes, how-to's on solo hiking, backpacking with dogs, and the like. I'm quite happy to delve back in, having refrained out of the sense that it's all "old news." So I'll segue to a series of hiking stories by way of closing the circle on my opening comments via a recap of a more recent hike.

I've entered the Keystone Trail Association's "Super Hike", as well as a Steamtown redoux, events looming large on my personal horizon this September and October. To prep for those goals, I've been logging more miles than usual, and of course Ella's along for a lot of them. Admittedly, she's not getting the consistent exercise she did before Ieuan came home. When I do road workouts I generally take Ieuan, because Ella and I both prefer it when she can be off leash, so she gets outings mainly when I'm doing woodland trails. Which means she's become a bit of a weekend warrior, lounging about in the backyard or the kitchen on weekdays, slogging the trails over hill and dale on the weekends.

Sundays have become the "big mileage" days, mostly because the past several Sundays have been gloriously sunny, providing a welcome excuse to head for the hills, literally. Three Sundays ago our destination was Harriman State Park, where we did somewhat under fourteen miles; two Sundays ago we stepped it up a notch and headed to Catskills State Park, where we took on a more challenging route along the Escarpment Trail from North Lake to Blackhead Mountain. Ella and Ieuan came along on both outings, and although I'm somewhat ashamed to admit it, my ego is gratified when a trail that's kicking my butt is also exacting a toll on the four-paw-drive duo. Distance is one thing, but when it's done over ice-covered trails (who woulda thunk we'd need our Kahtoola micro spikes??? Didn't do me any good sitting home!) and up 4700 feet of vertical gain with some rock scrambles thrown in, it's a serious workout. Neither dog quit, but both flung themselves into their car crates with audible relief when we finally "dogged it" out of the mountains at 9:30 PM.

What brought me to stark reality was the aftereffects. Sure, I was stiff the next day, but I'm 55 and I've spent most of the winter/spring doing my best to keep Gertrude Hawks Chocolates in the black, so I'm hauling an extra twenty pounds around (I could say it was deliberate, to prep for backpacking, but I'd be lying) - I expect to have some aches and pains after a man-versus-mountain ordeal. No previous hike had ever reduced Ella to crippling around, though, and when my girl stood up the next morning and keeled over against the wall, dropped to the floor, attempted to get going again only to repeat the drunken stagger, I felt a stab of guilt at the possibility that she was seriously injured. She goes on these outings because I ask her to. Sure, she wants to, but I'm the one with foresight...I need to be conscious of what I ask of her. I don't look at her and see a geriatric - but ten years is old if you're a dog. Two years ago when we did our walkabout I knew it might be our last major endeavor together. The past two years have wrought changes in me, mostly for the better, but time passes swiftly, intensely, in the canine universe.

Challenges are good, healthy, life-affirming. Up to a point. Fitness, both mental and physical, necessitates facing and negotiating a certain measure of stressors. We tend to avoid that which causes pain or fear or discomfort of any sort. Yet pressing into and past discomfort expands awareness of possibility, and potentially expands the limits of capability. Ella has already met and vanquished more challenges than most dogs; thereby did she attain the confidence and wisdom evident on her face. She's just as squirrel-obsessed as she ever was, just as sure that fresh-caught venison should be on the menu, just as savvy about negotiating steep terrain and flooded creeks. But wisdom counsels prudence as well, and for my four-footed friend's sake I must grapple with my denial. She's not immortal, she's ten years old now, she's slowing down. We are neither one youngsters any more. Still very capable, with many a milestone yet to surmount,we will negotiate the trails ahead with grace born of well-earned wisdom.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Endings and Epochs

Eight week old Hollow Hills female from Aiobheann vom hohlen Huegel X Orus d'Ulmental

Here I go posting a photo of a puppy from a litter I haven't even introduced to my readers. Purple Girl's saga was left hanging, and though some of you have written to ask how things turned out, rather than concluding her story here I've gone and tossed up another adorable face, another puppy representing another litter, another generation, another beginning. Was there any conclusion to the Purple Girl saga? No, her story has really just begun. Her "adventure" didn't define her, and certainly won't limit her, although it absolutely did impact her. Her first couple of chapters were set here at Hollow Hills, but it won't be for me to write her story from now on; she's in Nebraska with her new owner, a veterinarian who has named her Jemma and has introduced her to agility. She's a survivor, and her capacity for meeting the experiences she'll have in life will be imbued with strengths she acquired from having to contend with difficulties early-on.

So, the "J" litter set off for their new homes in December (other than the two I kept for myself), the "K" litter arrived auspiciously on 12/12/12 and has taken up residence in my kitchen, harassing (and being harassed by) the rat terrier puppy "Bling." There's little fanfare at each transition, and yet it feels momentous each time it occurs. It seems about when I begin to know one group of pups they're replaced by another. After thirty years, one would think I'd blithely watch the comings and goings, inured to the necessity of parting with most of them. But no, it has become more, not less, difficult to let them go. As each release date approaches, waves of angst tie my guts up in knots as I imagine a future bereft of this particular guileless face, that inviting little play bow, his calm assurance, her grinning impishness. I embrace them as they come into my world, but they are not mine, not really. Law sees them as mine and yes, I defend that right of law, the legalities of ownership. But I know better- we are Pack; I oversee their joining of other Packs, resulting in the restructuring of my own as some stay, some go.

These exchanges will enrich other lives, to be sure...and while I can empathize with the new owners' joy, their subjective experience doesn't lessen my own sense of loss. In the stage play that is their world a new and exciting life just entered, stage right...in mine, a beloved character just exited, stage left.

So the edges blur. My ending, your beginning. Each new Now is a direct offspring of Then. No endings. No beginnings. Now is all there is...it's the descendant of What Was, the ancestor of What Will Be. Each inextricably bound up in the Other. But if that's the case, where is the chance to begin anew?

With each new breath. Out. In. Let go. Embrace.

How does one embrace something that is impermanent? Shouldn't I harden my heart, shrink from the emotional pain that I know all-too-well is coming? Wouldn't that be the "smart" thing to do? Isn't it foolish, childish, to deliberately set myself squarely in the path of foreseeable (avoidable) anguish?

One of the most common stories people tell me is their version of desire to avoid the experience of loss; that when they lost their last dog, they told themselves they would never have another dog because they don't ever want to hurt the way they hurt when their dog died. That they're talking to me reveals they've worked out the flip side of that coin...not having had the dog, they'd have never known the love that opened their hearts enough to be vulnerable to such pain.

Lock up their heart, let that space grow withered and cold, or open it to another dog? Those who tell me their stories have opted to love again.

Today a woman came to pick up a rat terrier puppy. Gradually, tentatively, she revealed that three years ago yesterday her partner died unexpectedly. The pain of that loss was engraved on her face, not fresh and searing but steady and aching, a constant reminder of the impermanence of all things. And here she was, wrapping her arms around a two-pound pup, literally embracing the very thing that will one day break her heart again.

Dust in the Wind. A favorite (pop) song of mine in my earlier years, and not just because I'm a Kansas girl (it's written by Kansas). Decades before I identified with Buddhism, the wisdom of those lyrics resonated with me.

We must figure out how to live while we're alive.

My kids...once perfection and potential in a swaddling cloth, I blinked and they're adults whose dynamic energy flows in (exquisite joy) and out (barrenness) of my world. My dogs - Ginger, Gwydion, Star, Stano, Ginny, Sierra, Celti, and soon Brianne....once so vibrantly alive, and now? I don't pretend to know. But their past presence in my life benefits those whose lives entwine with mine now.

If the "K's" have perhaps been kept a little too confined, had too little exposure to the great outdoors and all things "horsey", they can blame Purple Girl (Jemma) for my over-protectiveness. I'll undoubtedly relax my grip as time goes by, but the trauma of Jemma's odyssey was not hers alone...the impact it had on my perception of life will remain, reflected in an extra helping of caution and perhaps not-so-healthy hypervigilance. This litter is raised according to the lessons I've learned with every litter that has ever come before. Every previous experience informs every new one. Some say we must leave our past in the past, but I contend we cannot, and indeed should not. We are the Past. We are the Future. We are What Is. Every single Thing, living or inanimate, exists because of the causes and conditions that resulted in the exact circumstances that brought Me, You, the "J's" and "K's" and X/Y/Z's into existence.

Dates, dogs, dance partners, tenants, life partners...they come, they go. We may help, we may heal. We will definitely hurt each other. Embrace it, all of it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


"Doctor would like to remove the external fixator today, with your permission. Or, we could schedule her for next week." Next week? Hell's bells, get that thing off the pup already! "Yes, please, if she's ready, by all means do it today." Four weeks and five days since the pup was kicked by the horse, but who's counting? It's done! Over! She's healed!

Well, not quite. Puppy still has to convalesce, gradually rebuilding her strength with short walks several times a day. The pins that held the fragments of bone in place had to pass through healthy bone, leaving holes that now have to heal. And until those holes are closed in with solid bone, the leg is still fragile.

That's what can't be seen - the internal effects. Looking at her you see a happy, active, inquisitive, beautiful puppy. She doesn't realize she's "full of holes", as it were, and she wants desperately to race and bounce and wrestle and chew (especially chew! don't get me going on the damages those teeth have wrought!). An observer would have to look hard to realize anything is amiss, because she sure doesn't look like an invalid. The only indications of her ordeal now that the apparatus was removed can be seen only if you're looking for them - externally her leg shows lumps and bumps where the skin, muscle, and other living tissue reacted angrily to cold steel having being thrust through it.

That cold steel that held the fragments of her tibia and fibula in place was crucial. Without those steel pins locked firmly onto her leg, drawing the splintered pieces together, her body's attempts to heal would have resulted in deformation and probably lifelong pain. Fortunately for Purple Girl, friends, clients, and complete strangers were generous in their assistance, helping me defray a portion of the cost of complex orthopedic surgery that provided her the opportunity to heal.

The people who helped pay for the surgery were crucial, the expertise of the surgical team was crucial,the apparatus of pins and plates was crucial. The apparatus itself represents the work of countless others who ultimately were crucial to Purple Girl's second chance...the apparatus was designed by bioengineers, manufactured under exacting engineering standards, installed and maintained and tweaked by a specialized surgeon with an entire team of medical professionals.

Yet, it was the pup's own body that healed itself. Everything else just supported that process. Without the support, the healing couldn't have happened. All of that assistance, expertise, and nurturance provided the framework within which Mother Nature could work another miracle. Life sustains itself, given a chance.

When something breaks, it's not always possible to fix it...whether that something is a glass or a toy or a bone or a heart. As I should know by now, healing is an ongoing process. Appearances are deceiving, and since individuals - puppies or people - generally don't recognize, let alone advertise, their own internal dents and scrapes and bruises and holes, those around them may interact with them more roughly than their stage of healing warrants. Looking at Purple Girl's liquid chocolate eyes, imploring me to please, oh please, just let me run! I instead have to engage in compassionate tyranny...lock her up in a hug and give her a massage until she relaxes, allowing herself to enjoy what she has, rather than what she thinks she wants. What she thinks she wants would in reality cause her harm, set her healing process back, perhaps even be the death of her.

Sometimes, for healing to occur, we can't engage with life as we once did. Perhaps not ever again. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. When trauma has wrought changes, to body or soul, the trajectory of the life is changed, the life that proceeds from that point is altered. Not necessarily limited, and often the healing process results in an augmentation of the original. Purple Girl is one very lucky puppy. Because of her age, the healing process was in hyper-drive, and though it is not yet complete, she will soon run again.

Ultimately, we heal ourselves.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


At left, Ieuan vom hohlen Huegel, AD, BH, IPO 1, 'a'

He's home!

Ella (V Elatha vom hohlen Huegel, SchH 2, Kkl 1 'a') has been my almost-exclusive hiking partner for the past year and a half, and during that time has become nearly as necessary to me as oxygen. But prior to that time my usual partner was Ieuan. So why was he not there by my side, as was Ella, during the walkabout last year and indeed every other trail mile I've been logging? Ieuan was with trainers, working on his titles. That is, until six weeks ago when I picked him up as Jess (my daughter) and I were on our way to the Monongahela wilderness area of West Virginia for a long weekend of backpacking.

Ieuan had just gone High in Trial and High Scoring Tracking Dog while earning his IPO 1 under Nikki Banfield, and it was time for him to come home. Perfect timing for him to take some well-deserved R&R, so for once Ella stayed home to make room in the car to pick up Ieuan as we drove south to the mountains.

The necessity of titling my dogs, in combination with the fact that being a breeder means there is always a steady stream of young dogs growing up and moving into adulthood, has dictated that for the past fifteen years or so I've raised my pups to a certain age, brought them to a base level of training, and shipped them off to Germany to achieve the titles that the German system requires for a breeding program. I was fortunate enough to work with friends and trainers in Germany who ensured that the dogs have come home just as happy as when they left, and it was a system I'd hoped to follow throughout my breeding career. Unfortunately, post-divorce financial realities have instilled hurdles that I haven't yet found a way to overcome, but one step towards reducing the cost of titling has been to work with trainers in this country (eliminating the shipping expenses). Tim & Carol Karchnak of Muddy River K-9 have been marvelous to work with and their methods ensure that the dogs work because they love it, not because they're forced to.

So, Ieuan achieved his titles, had a lovely vacation, and is home and has been logging many a mile as my hiking buddy alongside Ella. They make quite an impressive team, red coats flashing bright against the bronze and brown landscapes of late-fall woodlands. I relish the wildness that lights their eyes as develop pack hunting strategies, feeding off each others' instinctive reactions to musky deer scent of the autumn rut. I'm never more blissful than when spending days in their company, their unadulterated joy calling forth my own Paleolithic inheritance as our trail-hardened muscles carry us tirelessly, mile after mile. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the further we go, the stronger and fiercer I feel. I wonder if they feel that, too.

Where once I felt my responsibility as dog owner was to control and modify my dogs' natural behaviors, I now see myself as more of a supervisor, a witness, providing opportunities for them to discover their own capacities while maintaining some degree of boundaries for their own protection. There really is nothing I can teach them, other than to try to establish a mutually-understood language that allows us to function as a team. They are complete and more than sufficient unto themselves, yet they chose to partner with me, and that fact gives me more than enough to ponder on our rambles. The choosing to share a life with an Other, the struggle to understand and to be understood, to communicate and to share...isn't that what all relationships are about?

As the years have gone by, my idea of a "long walk" has evolved numerically and then geometrically (four miles became six became ten became thirty), dissolving boundaries both physical and mental. As these once solid-seeming barriers were surmounted, the very idea of limitations has nearly evaporated.

Though I've always been athletic and outdoorsy, without these canine companions I know I would never have ventured into the wilderness as extensively as I have, nor grappled with the barriers that hemmed me in. Granted, I'd warrant that most of those barriers were self-constructed. Nonetheless, the experiences I've shared with these dogs never fail to remind me of the limitless possibilities of a life lived unleashed.

And isn't that a Homecoming of the best sort?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Healing Machine

"A Healing Machine"

That's what the surgeon called her at her first checkup. A Healing Machine. I know it was a generic comment, directed at the natural capacity for baby puppies to heal quickly, rather than being an assessment of her specific capacity for preternatural deposition of new bone. Still, it was reassuring to hear it. I'd taken her back to the ER for an evaluation just eight days post-surgery because she was turning her leg oddly, walking with a twist and roll to her step that I thought was indicative of trouble. She placed her weight on the inside edge of her paw, turning her knee outward and rolling off the inside toe rather than the middle toe.

The surgeon took her in for additional X-rays, and confirmed that her external fixator apparatus needed to be adjusted. A few twists and tweaks to the screws and pins later, and the surgeon reported that Purple Girl's tibia and fibula were lined up nicely. She came home groggy but was soon wide awake and back to being bored and frustrated. The first week had been tough for both of us...she wasn't allowed any freedom whatsoever, just potty breaks on a short leash, and otherwise crated. To help her tolerate the enforced confinement, she'd been on Acepromazine and pain killers, but now, ten days later, she'd been weaned off the pain meds, and I hated keeping her medicated. She had now earned some freedom in a small enclosure, but had to have careful supervision of her time outside the crate, and she wore a "cone" at all times.

For anyone who's ever had a dog in a cone, you know that they just don't "get" that their head takes up more space than usual, and they seem to revel in one of the only games available in their restricted state - how many objects (or people) they can wipe out with each move they make. Purple Girl really only wanted attention, wanted entertainment, wanted above all to have that itchy spot just under the edge of the cone to be scratched and scratched and scratched!

In the days following the adjustment to her apparatus, the pup has used the leg far more normally, her limp is hardly noticeable, and she's becoming a dynamo impossible to keep quiet. The crate is too confining, the leash too restrictive, the play area too bland and austere. She explodes out of the crate, blasts full-bore into my shins with the sharp edge of that cone, and ricochets around like a flea in a can until I can grab her and tuck her under my arm, where she squirms and writhes and groans in protest. She can't wait to get back to living a normal puppy existence, which, thankfully, the surgeon assures me won't be too much longer. The Healing Machine will go for her next X-ray on Tuesday, and I'm hoping we'll have more good news to report.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Purple Girl a couple of weeks before her accident.

Just a quick update in the saga of Ember's Purple Girl. The outpouring of support from friends, clients, and complete strangers has been phenomenal and utterly humbling. I'm overwhelmed by the selflessness and generosity of the compassionate people who helped make it possible for "Purple Girl" to have the orthopedic surgery her injury required.

The response to my plea for help was immediate, so I felt confident that giving the go-ahead for surgery was the right thing to do, and Purple Girl (she needs a name - this is the "J" litter so suggestions are welcome) was quickly scheduled for emergency surgery on Sunday. The staff at the Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center (Clarks Summit, PA) are compassionate, caring, and above all, talented professionals who assessed the extent of the puppy's injuries and gave me the straight-scoop on the options. The fractures of her tibia and fibula weren't the nice clean type that could potentially heal with a splint, they ran lengthwise and spiral in such a way that only pinning would hold the leg together. As a result, only external fixation would give her bones the stability they need to heal. And thus, the reason for my unusual request.

The surgeon was more encouraging than the ER doctor who had taken the initial X-rays. She felt confident there's no damage to the growth plates and that there should be no complications, and that in short order Purple Girl will be out there playing with her siblings. "Short order" being defined as a month or two...which is no short order for an exuberant, intelligent, curious, energetic pup.

The good news is that her very young age should allow her to heal very quickly; the bad news is that her very young age makes it extremely difficult to keep her quiet enough to allow those bones to heal! Poor baby is confined to a crate for the first two weeks and only allowed potty breaks on-leash. After that she can begin to build up her strength again with very carefully controlled short walks. It's astonishing to me how this little girl shows no signs of pain and would have wanted to romp and rough house the day after her surgery if allowed to follow her own inclinations. Why are humans such wimps? This kid is an inspiration!

Special thanks to the surgeon, Dr. Rachael Currao, who is an accomplished surgical specialist and whose professional skills have given this puppy a bright future. Additional appreciation to the administrative staff at VREC for working with me to keep the costs to a minimum. And most especially, undying gratitude to those donors who have pledged contributions to the "give Purple Girl a chance" fund!