Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dog People

Some days I can’t help wondering what it is about dogs that entrances us so…why do some of us weave the strands of our lives inextricably with theirs? Why are some so obsessively in love with our four-legged pals as to virtually eat-sleep-breathe dogs? And, perhaps more illuminating, there’s the completely incomprehensible (to dog lovers) question of why some folks do not.

Dog lovers and non-dog folk come in every stripe; you’re not going to differentiate dog-centric versus non-dog people through easily categorized distinctions like athletes versus sedentary types, country versus city dwellers, extroverts versus hermits. Sub-categories further complicate the picture - dog owners who profess to love their dogs may provide well for their physical needs but have no meaningful relationship with them (which opens up parallel inquiries into similar human conundrums); vet clinics are full of doting dog owners who literally kill their dogs with kindness; people on street corners gush over every dog they meet but don’t own one, believing they couldn’t do right by them (maybe correctly, maybe not); and the list goes on. Since my curiosity is directed towards those of us whose lives are modified dramatically by dogs versus the opposite leg of the bell curve, I’d really love to get a discussion going as to what drives some of us “to the dogs.” Is this obsession a sign that we dog-folk are a tad off-kilter, or can we claim to be the enlightened ones?

I’ve wondered if it has to do with whether or not we’re raised with dogs, conjecturing that lack of exposure early in life might atrophy some crucial psychological process, some developmental milestone when mirror neurons need stimulation to allow toddlers to develop healthy empathy for other beings. If parents or caregivers weren’t particularly good at providing those opportunities, or even if they were, those of us with canine pack-mates learned early-on, likely when pre- or barely-verbal, to read the real-time emotional reactions that dogs give. Humans say one thing but mean another; dogs give it to you straight. Children who don’t have the opportunity to see the cause and effect of pulling a dog’s whisker might never develop quite the same capacity for simpatico as those of us who grew up with dog hair pasted to our sticky fingers.

Taking it further back in the dog/human symbiotic evolutionary process, perhaps proto-dogs originally gravitated to human encampments because children snuck a few mammoth bones away from the hearth to lure in a puppy to play with. If proto-dogs had to choose between (A) accepting the sure thing (the bone) versus (B) snatching the more succulent but riskier (because of adult retribution) toddler, I’m betting that both child and proto-dog learned to read each other’s every gesture and expression quite accurately. Only those dogs that made choice (A) survived to produce pups to come back for a mammoth bone another day. Fast-forward a few million years and today’s dogs still provide children with non-verbal but very communicative pack-mates which may help prepare them to navigate the complex, broader human network. I’m thinking there is far more to this human-dog symbiotic exchange than we usually wonder about.

But ok, what about the adults…what about those of us who openly admit we prefer the company of dogs to that of people. What gives? Surely that’s not a “normal” or healthy position? Is it? (please tell me it is). While it may be true that we can trust our dogs whereas our fellow hominids are suspect, is our preference for dogs symptomatic of something gone awry in our psychological development? Yes, our dogs love us unconditionally while our kids/spouses/bosses expect us to minister to their needs in one form or another. But still, have we failed to navigate some essential transition from our childhood canine connections to evolutionarily essential human ones? Or should we just be grateful that we’re among the ones who have the benefit of the rich, funny, infuriating, blissful pleasure of being loved by dogs and loving them back?

I do know that there seems to be a longing for understanding that dogs satisfy, maybe one stemming from those long-ago fireside exchanges when eyes at the fringe of darkness reflected the firelight back and two intelligent, social beings really saw one another. Dogs meet a need for direct, raw, unfiltered connection that doesn’t happen often or easily with other humans. I suspect that the modern world alienates us from the immediacy of living, and our domestic wolves let us tap into what is still real and wild and alive in ourselves.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


One of my favorite TV channels has the slogan "characters welcome." I guess it resonates with me because I would like to believe one who has always heard a different drummer, I have wasted a lot of imaginative energy wishing our society and culture truly welcomed characters. For the most part that just isn't so. Characters, or persons of character, stand out from the crowd. They turn heads, create a stir. But in this country, for the most part, conformity garners likability, convictions generate division. Originality is unrecognized or ridiculed. Pretense is tolerated; honesty is reviled and sometimes downright dangerous.

One thing dogs are, it's honest. They're pissed, you know it. They're sad, their entire being radiates dejection. They adore you, you bask in an aura of love. And if they don't like you, well, pretending is not in a dog's repertoire. I've probably spent more time in the company of dogs than among my fellow humans. Some of their attributes have informed the way I interact with the world; sometimes that's good, sometimes not so much. I tend to call it like I see it, as they do. That's not generally well-received.

Our expectations for our dogs far outstrip equivalent human capacity to measure up. We expect our dogs to never be irritable, or if they are, to not show that in any obvious way. We expect a dog to tolerate whatever comes their way, whatever is dished out. Inappropriate discipline, inadequate socialization, minimal mental stimulation, social isolation, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, all of these and more are heaped on our dogs and we expect them to keep on wagging their tails, keep on licking our hands, keep on wearing stupid costumes and tolerating the baby's fingers in their ears and our tread on their tails. A dog that growls is seen as bad, even dangerous. A dog that snaps is "disloyal" or has "turned." A dog that actually does bite is condemned, sometimes to a life in a cage and muzzle, sometimes to death.

How many times have we lost our temper, said or done something we'd like to take back, something hurtful, something vile, something bruising to relationships or even bodies? I know I don't measure up. I've snapped at my daughter, ducked a call from an old friend, been snide to another friend, forgotten my brother's anniversary, my sister-in-law's birthday, ripped a few folks a new asshole. And that's just in the past week...I couldn't begin to document the faults and failings of this particular character over my half-century in this world. I'm just glad I'm not a dog, I'd have been given the long sleep a long time ago. The world prefers its characters in a format controllable with a remote.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

More trauma

"So how's she doing?" I'd fielded the question many times in the past two weeks, but now I needed an antecedent for the pronoun.

"Which one?" I figured I knew, given that the person asking was my (almost) ex who had performed both Caesarians but who was fairly transparently fishing for compliments.

His expression told me he'd forgotten there was another; no surprise there, he can't keep my dogs straight. He covered with "The one that nearly died" hoping, I'm sure, that distinguished the one he was thinking of, and also confirming my suspicion that he wanted a little ego-stroking. He had, afterall, saved her life.

"Her" being Rio. I blogged about Cymri two weeks ago when she had to have a Caesarian to deliver her three pups. In the meantime Rio blossomed to a size that was painful just to look at. I knew she was carrying a huge litter, and the potential complications of overly large litters are scarier than unusually small ones. So I'd been on pins'n'needles for the last couple of weeks, especially when Rio stopped eating. That in itself is not terribly unusual; a female carrying so many puppies has trouble finding room for food. But she just didn't seem....right.

She went into labor a day early, again not surprising with her body under such stress. Two pups were born readily then nothing more happened for five hours. A little calcium coaxed two more, but once again she shut down for several hours. More calcium brought forth another three, but she was exhausted and depleted...more ominously, she was pasty, wan, and frightened. I pressed her gums...they stayed white. Minimal capillary refill...she was going into shock. Given the size of her uterus and the struggle, I worried the uterus had ruptured and she might be bleeding internally. I pulled out my little Doppler and couldn't find any fetal heartbeats; there was no more time for midwifery no matter how skilled-- she needed immediate veterinary intervention. I called the clinic, gathered up the five living puppies into a box with a hot water bottle, grabbed Brianne in case a blood donor was needed, helped Rio into the backseat and wished I could teleport to town.

An X-ray revealed three more puppies. Surgery was commenced quickly, and once again I found myself receiving three soggy, limp bodies warm from their mother's belly. Unfortunately one was long dead and though we got gasps from the other two, only one of those progressed to steady breathing in spite of our best efforts.

Puppy resuscitation attempts took place in a treatment room so I wasn't present to watch the struggle going on in the surgery ward. But the techs' comings and goings back and forth past the doorway had a hushed urgency and finally I had to go check, carrying the puppy whose heart I was still massaging. The heart monitor was beeping, the O2 stats looked fine, but several saturated towels on the floor attested to the amount of blood that had overflowed the surgery table, and the intensity with which the two techs were struggling to get a blood pressure reading dropped my heart into my gut.

"No pulse?" My question was sharper than I'd intended. "Oh, she has a pulse, we just can't find it." I couldn't tell if Keith's answer was meant to be reassuring, glib, or if if I should take it at face value. I opted for the latter and retreated for the puppy room, but snagged the next tech as she raced back by. PCV (packed cell volume) was through the floor. My hope went right with it.

But I knew Brianne was there, I knew we had blood available, we just lacked a trauma team to be able to work several procedures at once, and this was a situation that required a multi-pronged effort. The office manager had run to another clinic to get a blood-collection bottle, but everyone else already had a role to play in the process. And our surgeon was also our clinician so we couldn't collect the blood that Rio so desperately needed while he was still in the middle of surgery. He had her on a hyper-tonic (?) IV to help stabilize her blood vessels but that was only a stop-gap.

Finally he got her closed, I abandoned my fruitless efforts with the second pup, put the surviving one with the five from home, and brought Brianne into an exam room. Her face revealed her thoughts, thoughts which astounded me...the wrinkles on her forehead might have been concern, might have been fear, might have been foreknowledge. All I know is that she walked onto the exam table, looked me in the eye, licked my chin, and held completely still with her nose pointed skyward for ten minutes while a needle in her jugular pulled deep rich, platelet- and red cell-laden blood into a bottle.

Then the wait began while Rio lay inert on a blanket, babies tucked in beside her to nurse, an IV pumping fluids into one foreleg while the other, the beautiful crimson one, dripped life back into her other foreleg one pulse at a time.

Today as I watched her race towards me through the snow, grinning and beautiful, I marvel. I marvel that she doesn't waste a moment of today thinking about how she almost died last Tuesday. She doesn't regret, she doesn't bemoan, she doesn't fear. She lives.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Meditation for 2010

Nothing need be said: