Friday, November 13, 2009

Muzzy's Train of Thought

Her name is Muzzy, and she's a siderodromophobic. It has taken me weeks to figure out why she acts restless and anxious in the wee early morning hours, when the rest of us are still asleep. For a couple of weeks, I assumed that the aimless moving around, the licking of her lips, and the yawning were the result of nausea caused by antibiotics. I got her medication and a new diet to deal with the nausea and the puking, but the roaming-and-licky-lips thing has continued. And then, this morning, I figured it out. She seemed so anxious during our morning walk, a usually happy time. She even jumped up, put her paws on my chest, and looked me right in the face, as if to say, "Don't you get it? It's the train!!!!" 

MoPac and the railroad tracks lie just across the street from us. And, indeed, this morning, as we walked a slow moving freight train was rumbling north along with the morning rush hour. The trains don't blow whistles along MoPac—at least not since neighborhood groups complained to the City for years. But even the quietest of the train emits a low but persistent rumble along with just enough vibrations to set the picture frames on our walls askew on a regular basis. I usually sleep right through the trains, but I do notice that I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. I get up and go to the bathroom, and it isn't until I get back in bed and try to fall asleep again that I become acutely aware of the low thrumming of a freight engine and the steady beat of hundreds of train wheels against the track. 

Poor Muzzy. I know that dogs are highly associative. She may have developed this fear on a morning when she woke up to puke and got tossed outside to do it. The discomfort of her tummy and her dislike of being outside alone in the dark while a noisy train was passing by may have imprinted her pea-sized brain as a fear of trains. What am I to do for her? Ear plugs? Doggie tranks? A house in a trainless zip code? She's going to have to deal with this, or we'll never get a good night's sleep.

For those of you who are interested, siderodromophobia is, technically, the fear of traveling on a train. Sidero comes from the Greek and means "iron." It is used in chemical names, such as sidero-calcite. Dromo, also from the Greek, means "running." (According to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, a dromomaniac is one who is crazy about running or roaming.) The word siderodromophobia was first used in 1897 in an early psychology book describing newly documented fears, such as arachniphobia—fear of spiders. Fear of railways is a particularly nineteenth century phenomenon, as the iron horse made its way across almost every continent in the world during that period. Why couldn't Muzzy become aviophobic—afraid of flying? Or coulrophobic—afraid of clowns. <>  I would be so on board with her then, and we could all get some sleep.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Literary Dog: "My Dog Does Not Know I Am Human"

Recently I read a review of a collected works of a writer I had never heard of before—Lydia Davis. The reviewer raved about her. Davis is a contemporary writer of what has been called "flash fiction." Her specialty is short-short stories, anecdotes really or brief descriptions, that provide a keyhole into an unknown character's thoughts. Sometimes a piece is a mere sentence or two; yet, like a haiku, it captures the joy or despair or mundane conundrums of a person you might pass in the grocery store or at the Dog Park. I was curious about Davis and found one of her books at the local library. I was pleased to discover that the second piece in her book Varieties of Disturbance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) is about one of our favorite subjects. Here is the piece in its entirety.

Dog and Me by Lydia Davis
An ant can look up at you, too, and even threaten you with its arms. Of course, my dog does not know I am human, he sees me as dog, though I do not leap up at a fence. I am a strong dog. But I do not leave my mouth hanging open when I walk along. Even on a hot day, I do not leave my tongue hanging out. But I bark at him: "No! No!

I am pretty sure that my girls don't think that I am a dog. I am too illogical and moody to be a dog. But I do bark at them. I'll bark at  you, too, next time we meet at Dog Park. See you there.

For reviews of Davis's latest, a collected works, see here and here

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Married to the Dog

There has been a spate of new books out recently about dogs, their place in the world, and their relationships with people. I have not read them, but I have perused some of the reviews, which distill all of the interesting bits for those of us who don't have the attention span for full-length nonfiction books. One interesting tidbit that I recall from one review is that relationships with dogs contain many of the thrilling elements of early courtship--plenty of eye contact, barely contained excitement at each meeting, endless enthusiasm for whatever boring activity is suggested. In other words, having a dog means that date night never ends. Or does it?

For many years, I have characterized my relationship with my Roma as a marriage. It is a secure and comfortable but occasionally contentious partnership that will last until one of us lies down for the last time. When I adopted her from the Austin Humane Society in 1996, I had to sign a document attesting to my awareness of the many responsibilities of owning a dog--financial, ethical, and so on. I rolled my eyes. She's just a dog. I'm not marrying her. Except I kind of did. And I feel that our relationship is far more solid than my actual marriage ever was in great part because Roma and I have paid attention to each other and learned how the other one thinks and feels and reacts. What's more, we have accepted each other as we are. I understand that Roma is never going to be a snuggle bunny or a comforter. She will show me the paw and head to the other end of the house if I start to cry or yell. And I know that every single time I let her off the leash at Dog Park that she will find some disgusting thing to eat. She knows that we will never get out of the house on the first try because I always forget something--bags or keys or leashes. And I know that she really does want to chase a ball if only that Muzzy would stop showboating and hogging all the attention. We can't change who we are, but we love each other despite how annoying we can be. That's family, right?

This morning on my way home from the eye doctor, I drove past a convenience store on Shoal Creek Boulevard. I remember many, many years ago riding my bike to that shop. I stopped to buy some water, and in the parking lot was a man sitting sideways in the driver's seat of his car with the door open. He was an old guy, with a grey comb-over and a gut hanging over his belt, perched in a Caddie or Buick gulping down a pint of ice cream with a plastic spoon. Even to a naive, young, single woman such as myself, it was obvious what he was doing. He had clearly snuck out of the house and away from the wife to indulge a forbidden fatty and sugary treat. Somewhere a woman was slaving away, making him a healthful meal of salad and baked potato to help keep his weight down or his heart working, and here he was snarfing a pint of Blue Bell in a Quickie Mart parking lot. And later, when he had the diabetic coma or the heart attack, his wife would exclaim, "But I took such good care of him! I watched his every move, his every bite." Oh, my dear woman, I realize now, that is impossible. So, twenty years later, I am like that wife, and Roma is the sneaky old coot who eats things she shouldn't and ignore my feelings while I do everything in my power to keep the old girl up and running. Somehow it works for us.

I suppose I would have liked that early courtship feeling from Roma, but it was never her deal. Take her or leave her; she'd find her own way with or without me, thank you very much. (She survived ten days on her own while lost in Bull Creek Park, with hardly a scratch or much weight loss when we found her.) We share a deep, affectionate respect for one another, but passion it is not. It wasn't until I met Muzzy that I realized what doggie love was really all about. More about that another time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Good Dog, Smart Dog

I love it when science explains things that I notice all the time. A few years ago, I actually read something that explained why the shower curtain tends to balloon in towards you after you first turn on the shower spray. (A phenomenon that occurs far more often in the freezing northeast than here in balmy Texas. Living in Worcester, MA, I had to learn to turn the shower tap before I climbed into the claw-footed tub with the wrap-around shower curtain; otherwise, a cold, clammy shower curtain would creep in at me from all sides like Norman Bates and cause me to shriek. It's science! Who knew?) So imagine my lack of surprise when I read in the New York Times last week that dogs are actually pretty smart. All together now: "Well, duh." 

The article by Sarah Kershaw talks about how medical alert dogs are able to draw on their intelligence as well as their superior senses  to help their companions before seizures or panic attacks or diabetic comas strike. Apparently, until recently, most researchers and trainers assumed that the dogs who served as medical alert animals were good at their jobs precisely because they were good dogs. The thinking was that the dogs just wanted to please. Now researchers believe the dogs complete their tasks properly because they are smart. (Duh, again!) 

Kershaw cites a couple of research cases in which dogs learned enormous vocabularies (up to 250 words—more than your average 2-year-old human— and, may I add, better behaved) as well as abstract concepts, such as color and shape. One dog—a Border Collie, of course—learned 1,500 words. (That's better than many of my tutorees!) Another, a Shepherd, learned to recognize images of dogs so that he could distinguish between photographs that featured dogs from those that did not. These dogs' accomplishments are pretty amazing. 

Of course, researchers still suggest that desire to please is still a great factor in training. Dogs are opportunists. They do whatever it takes to get the treat or the pats or the boo-boo voice from their trainers and owners. If you ask me, there's nothing wrong with that. Dogs that are really smart learn how to manipulate their owners while making them feel loved. In my experience, not many humans can do that.  As one psychology professor—the one who met the BC with the brilliant vocabulary—points out, dogs are intelligent, but their brains work differently than human brains do. 
“I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking. It’s a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.”
Of course! The last thing we need are animals that think like humans! Still, it is nice to see that doggie intelligence is getting its due. Break out the flash cards! 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Arf!: The Dog Parkist Speaks

Q: There is a woman at the Dog Park who takes it upon herself to police the poop pick-up. That's great when she's introducing new visitors to the Park, but when she alerts regulars who are momentarily distracted with a "Hey! Your dog just pooped!" or "Do you need a bag?", it's kind of annoying. Plus, half the time, her own dogs sneak off to drop a dump and she doesn't even see it. Double annoying! What do you think?
—Pooped Out at Dog Park

A: Well, Pooped Out, thanks for your query. The Dog Parkist is so glad to be back after a month-long break! And she missed you all so very much. After all, what's an advice columnist to do without her fellow humans and their many, many problems? She just sits around and tells herself what to do. She tries to tell the dogs, too, but they don't listen. They are too busy creating budget-crashing medical problems, poor things. But enough about elle!

Pooped, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but in every aspect of life you will inevitably encounter a person like the one you describe. You or I would call her a Scold. It's an ugly word, one usually associated with women more than men, but that is the way of the world. The thing to remember, however, is that the woman herself would be mortified to know that's how others see her. In her own mind, she is a Crusader. Like Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and those annoying Supertwins, she believes that she is on the side of freedom, justice, and personal responsibility. Every day, she fights the forces of ignorance, disdain, and indifference. As a result, her vision is a little impaired. She cannot tell the difference between someone, such as yourself, who is merely not paying attention, with someone who merely does not give a shit. Or more precisely, does not care who steps in his or her dog's shit. It's fertilizer after all, and there are no garbage cans at this park that is not a dog park. (See City Code for more details.) As a result, my dear, of course you feel insulted and dismayed when this woman, a regular patron just as much as you are, calls you out like the lout she mistakes you for. Ouch.

Here is the Dog Parkist's advice. First, model correct and admirable behavior by saying thank you in a polite voice and then stepping off the trail to attend to your dog's leavings. Linger a moment and allow her to pass. Perhaps offer a compliment to her own dogs. How lovely and well behaved they are, or how cute. Take your time to tie an elaborate knot in the bag. Then, tail her. Walk just far enough behind her so that you can keep an eye on her dogs while she in engrossed in conversation or by the liberal news organization she is listening to on her digital recording device. And when her own dogs do their business unattended, nail her. Call out her infraction of city code in the most forceful and cheerful voice you can muster. Smile sweetly as she offers her excuses and lingers to scoop and tie an elaborate knot in her bag. Then take the next divergent path, lest the cycle of poop-snooping continue ad infinitum.

Remember, your local Dog Park Scold has a purpose in life, and it is a good one. Every pile of doo she forces someone to scoop is one that does not end up in our water supply. Could she be more discriminating about her scolding? Of course! But take advantage of her thick skin and forceful personality. Point her in the direction of all the newbies at the Park. She may teach them a lesson or two. She may also make them feel so unwelcome that they don't return—a gift that keeps on giving. Thanks for writing!

Dear Readers: The Dog Parkist knows that the weather is lovely and that everyone is happily running around outside making the most of the few daylight hours we have left. Still, at some point you need to sit down at your computer and compose Herself a letter with a question, a query, an outrage, a remark. The Dog Parkist gives every missive her complete attention. Ta!