Thursday, April 30, 2015

An Early Love Letter to My Cat

Dear Sothlice,

Tomorrow, we will have been together for 6 years. I can still remember our first day together like it was yesterday. After striking out at the local shelter, I walked into the Santa Fe Petsmart, hoping they'd have a shelter kitty that was meant for me. As I approached the cat room, our eyes locked. You sat, watching the shoppers go by with your piercing green eyes, and I knew you were mine. I tried to be practical and look at each cat in the room--Chico, the fat brown cat, wanted my attention, but while he batted at my fingers through the cage, you waited patiently for me to return my attention to you. You didn't meow. You didn't bat at me. You just watched. As I was finishing up my poetry thesis at the time, I appreciated your powers of observation.

Even after they let us interact out of the cage, you were more interested in observing than anything else.

Your patience continued when we got home. You seemed to understand that I knew nothing about cats and as long as you had a windowsill to watch the world go by, you were happy. And watch you did: the Rough Riders motorcyclists, the people coming in (and sometimes not out) of the funeral home below our apartment, the 3 homecoming parades held that fall.

You didn't mind that I would lie under the covers giggling at night because I was nervous you'd jump onto the bed, but I didn't want to shut you out of the bedroom where you'd be alone all night--those were the days when you'd attack my toes if I moved at all during the night and I couldn't fall asleep while anticipating the pending pounce.

You also took great pleasure in hiding under covers then.
And seat cushions.

You didn't even seem to mind when I watched Marley and Me for the first (only) time and used a full box of Kleenex while blubbering about how I could never love you as much as I'd loved my first dog. (I lied.)

The shelter volunteers at Petsmart said you were a lovebug and would snuggle with me all day. (They lied.) But I have always loved you more for your independence. It makes the moments you do snuggle all the more special (which is why I always pull out the camera for a selfie op every time it happens). (Also, I get it. I really do. I hate being snuggled, too, but just like my mom will never stop hugging me, I'm never going to stop hugging you.)

This may be our first selfie--6 months into our love affair.
You even got your non-cat-loving Grandma to snuggle you.
And Sothy kisses are my favorite.
Aunt L also loves your kisses.

You've also been the best helper when it comes to grading and lesson planning. For example, you remind me that I need to take a break from work often and that naps are not wastes of time.

It's impossible to type assignment sheets when a cat has your hand.

And I'm sure that you thought you were improving the printer by shoving 5 hair ties inside of it until it jammed. You didn't judge me, though, when I got a wireless printer and hid it in a closet--you just found new places to store your most prized possessions.

I might not have ever thought that I'd be a crazy cat lady, but, my lovey, I think you know that I'm crazy about you. We have more in common than I'd ever have guessed.

You're persistent and don't stop until you get what you want--especially when it comes to food and I'm sure our selfie appears under the definition of hangry. I don't know how many travel coffee mugs you've broken by throwing them off the counter in fits of hungry rage. I can't even be mad about it because I want to break things when I'm hungry, too (just for the record, though, I usually refrain from giving into those destructive tendencies--you might benefit from similar self-control).

Grandma adopted this spider plant because you weren't giving up until you ate it all.

My favorite moments, though, are the ones when we stretch out in the sunlight on the carpet. That's been my favorite thing since I was old enough to crawl to patches of sunlight and I love that we can share that joy together (and it's something your sister will never understand).

I'm sure neither of us got what we were expecting when I took you out of the cage at Petsmart and loaded your carrier into the car, but I wouldn't trade you for the world. You've shown me that love is work and it's worth it. You've taught me patience and compassion. You've helped me overcome my germ phobia by giving me regular practice in cleaning up bodily functions (even just scooping the litter box used to make me gag and run to the toilet and now I clean it 5 times a day). I hope that I've taught you what home feels like--even if you never expected that home to be 2000 miles from where you were born or to include a crazy dog sister. 

I can't imagine my world without you in it. You are my strong, independent, stubborn, handsome little man cat and my first born, and I love you more than rainbows, my boy. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Facing Our Fears

This week hasn't been bad--we met our daily goal of 3.1 miles per day and then some--but it's felt hard. I don't really know why. It could be a normal response to our big week last week. Maybe it's because we started out the week with a loss of magic. Maybe it's the weather--our sunny "warm" days were replaced with dreary cold ones again; we even got caught in a hail storm on Wednesday. We didn't have any big days this week. In fact, I can't really think of anything memorable to report about our walks for most of the week.

On Saturday, it was warm enough that I didn't mind letting Barley splash in the lake a little bit. (I know some of your dogs have been swimming for weeks--but growing up my mom wouldn't let us in the water until it was at least 80 degrees out and I can't get that message out of my head when Barley tries to play in the frigid lake when it's only 60 out!) Barley doesn't like to get wet, but she likes to chomp at the water and then growl when she can't get ahold of it. Watching her jump back in surprise when a wave gets her toes makes me laugh, so we spent a while just walking back and forth along the little strip of beach.

Our big accomplishment of the week has nothing to do with walking. Our big accomplishment was facing Barley's arch nemesis, the dog that attacks our French doors.

After a morning of splashing in the lake, I wanted to sit outside and read while we still had sunny warm weather. I only had a couple chapters of my book left, so I thought it was a good afternoon to be outside. When Barley and I try to relax outside, I take a mat out for her, lots of treats, and a Kong or some other big stuffed snack to keep her focused on cleaning it out rather than looking for the devil dog. We did a lot of mat work in reactive dog class, so when we run the risk of encountering our less-than-neighborly neighbor dog, the mat helps keep Barley calmer.

Shortly after finishing a chapter, a high pitched yapping announced a party crasher. Luckily, I'd made sure I had enough of the long lead left to sit on the leash in addition to having the loop around my wrist, so there was not chance of a surprise that would pull the leash out of my hands if I was really into my book. Barley hopped up off her mat, so I got her attention by tossing a few treats on the patio and telling her to "Find It." I saw that the dog was on its tie out, so I relaxed a little and started focusing on keeping Barley's attention off the dog.

Usually, when the devil dog comes out, we go inside. I know that trains the dog that when it comes charging out--loose or to the end of it's tie out--we disappear, which just encourages it to keep charging out and yapping at us. But it's easier. Keeping Barley calm and focused with that dog is tough. She wants to lunge and bark back at it. We have to do our mat work, work on "what's that," and find treats on the porch. Going back inside requires less work, so it's usually the choice we make. Every aspect of being out in the world with Barley--from class to the vet to a park--requires a lot work (don't get me wrong, it's worth it, but it's tiring), so at home when we have the option to go inside, it's tempting to take it. 

This week, though, we worked on training through the problem and I think both dogs were better for it. We moved her mat from the grass up onto the patio, so there would be even more distance between her and the dog--as well as me and the patio furniture so the dog wouldn't be in her direct sight. I still had to be diligent and give her regular treats to reward her for staying focused and down. In most situations, we can go several minutes between rewards now, but with major triggers like this dog, we have to reward often. 

Barley never got into a more relaxed position, but she did quit popping up off her mat. When the little dog saw that we weren't going anywhere, it went back to sniffing it's yard--even though every time it looked up and saw we were still there, it started yapping again. Eventually, the neighbors took it inside and we went back to enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.

A celebratory jump during our walk.
It felt like a victory and we celebrated by taking a nice walk to the quiet end of our street where we rarely have to deal with other dogs. We're feeling well rested after a 25.59 mile week, so we're hoping for at least a couple bigger days of walking this week! Happy FitDog Friday everyone!

Monday, April 20, 2015

What the Duck!

While a lot of people think it's strange that I moved to Ohio after spending most of my life in Georgia, many of my happiest childhood memories were made just over the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line about 45 minutes from where I live now.

My dad grew up in northwester Pennsylvania, so I spent summers visiting my grandma and exploring the woods and creeks around her house. One of my favorite memories, though, was visiting the Pymatuning Spillway where there are so many carp that the ducks walk across them to get bread that visitors throw to them. It's gross. It's magical. It's something that has stayed with me my entire life.

It's been a while since Barley and I have visited a new park, so I decided we should go to Pymatuning. I've been meaning to visit since I moved here, but hadn't gotten around to. When I saw there was a trail along the spillway, I decided Barley and I should take a little road trip. 

As we approached the spillway, my excitement was through the roof! We'd see several signs for the town with "Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish" written on them. 

We got out of the car. There were no fish. No ducks. There were several fishermen who Barley immediately befriended, but Barley and I were the only creatures walking on anything.

This sign says, "The Spillway: Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish"
My childhood memories were crushed. Every magical memory I have from visiting Pymatuning seems like it was just a dream. In my memory, the spillway was a huge place teeming with fish and ducks fighting for pieces of bread. I even had a wallet with a picture of the ducks walking on the fish. 

Looking for fish and ducks.
Maybe it was too early in the year for the fish to be present. Maybe we should have braved the group of unruly children who were squealing at the end of the visitor's center walkway to see if the tiny portion of the spillway we didn't check out had fish and ducks. 

Despite the disappointment of missing out on ducks walking on fish, we had a lovely stroll along the reservoir. It was warmish even though the sun refused to come out until after we had almost made it back to the car. 

The only waterfowl we saw was a Canada goose that honked at us for the last half mile of our walk. The last time I was at Pymatuning, a Canada goose nipped me--I'm pretty sure this nasty thing was one of it's descendants.

We might try again in a few weeks and see if the magic comes back when the water's had a chance to warm up a little bit.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mental Workouts on Walks

In the winter, our walks are purely for physical exercise. They are our chance to get out of our yard--even if it's only for 10 minutes--and stretch our legs. Most of our mental exercise is done at home inside through nose works, focus games, working on tricks. There are no distractions in our winter wonderland--no birds, no squirrels, no other walkers/joggers/bikers/skateboarders. It's just me and my girl and the occasional train.

In the spring, though, walks start to be physical and mental exercise--and for the first time in months a walk actually wears Barley out. Barley's the type of dog who can get hours of physical exercise, but if her brain isn't tired, she'll still find the physical energy to get herself into trouble. 

In our neighborhood, we practice reaction to distraction at almost every turn. One night, we were just trying to get in a quick 1.5-mile evening walk before settling in for the night. We were on our way through the back entrance to our complex and I noticed a loose dog in the parking lot. A few people were out trying to catch it and a girl moved into the gap in the fence that we were aiming through to block the exit for the dog. Barley and I did a quick turn and walked the .5-miles back to the main entrance. Around the corner, we encountered a loose Yorkie--luckily, it was tiny and Barley didn't notice it from across the street and it was preoccupied with sniffing something, so we picked up the pace to get back to our apartment before that changed. Of course, the loose dog was still evading capture, which made our walk full of twists and turns as we dodged behind different buildings so the dogs didn't notice each other. Barley got lots of "what's that" practice and the interesting walking pattern we did to get back to the door kept Barley on her toes.

The parks are a much more fun way to work mental exercise into our walks. At the beach, sometimes Barley gets a little worked up when her toes hit the sand (I think she's sensitive to texture changes). She starts herding me and nipping if I move, so we get to practice the downs we've spent so much time working on when she gets worked up in agility.

Barley's "I know I was naughty, but do I really have to down in the damp sand?" face.

We also get to practice returning to heel. I'll let Barley walk ahead of me at parks as long as she's responsive and comes back to heel when I ask. Since we don't have to worry about dogs dashing out of yards along the trails, I can usually spot distractions with enough time to call her back to heel, so I don't mind giving her a little more freedom to sniff along the trail as long as she'll come back to my side.

Look how smiley she is when she focuses on me.

New things wash up on the beach at the lake regularly, so we get to practice various tricks as we walk along the lake. Sometimes we do balance work on random objects and work in a little distance work on our stays (only for a few seconds and only if there's not a sole in sight). Sometimes we practice "leave it" with the gross dead fish that wash up on shore. Other times, we work on building her confidence around birds.

She'll happily "go table," but she's over smiling for the camera.

Birds were having some sort of feeding frenzy in the lake behind her. 

When we visit our deer friends, Barley also practices responding to commands. She has to sit and watch. She has to stay. She makes it look easy, but I imagine it's probably really hard for her to smile for the camera when she has deer so close behind her.

We also got to practice her reaction to these turkeys.

This week we got a lot of great mental work while setting a new record for the year with 32.99 miles this week (yes--that .99 is going to drive me crazy).

Soth also got a little outdoor time this week--on Monday we got up to a beautiful 78 degrees (if you haven't gotten there don't be jealous--we're back to grey and 50 degrees today), so after Barley and I took our evening walk, Soth and I went out on the back porch to watch the birds together. 

I call this look Serengeti chic. He's such a handsome little lion. 

He's not as good as his sister is at looking at the camera instead of the wildlife, but he's still pretty adorable.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Success is Counted Sweetest

Lately, Emily Dickinson's words "Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne're succeed" have been ringing true for us. It seems like the universe just doesn't want us to succeed at meeting our goal.

This week started out strong. We had a great weekend with a beautiful walk along the lake. Far out from shore, there was still some ice on the lake, but for the most part the skies and the lake were bright blue.

A few weeks ago, the "theater" down by the campground was covered in ice and snow. Now, there are just a few puddles. Barley thought it was the perfect day for a movie, but I had to explain that it was still in the 40s, so I wasn't layered enough to sit still for that long. We did get in some nice sit-stay practice since we had the whole park almost all to ourselves.

The snowmobile trails were also wonderfully clear. We'd never walked on them before because usually they are totally overgrown during the spring and summer and Barley probably wouldn't handle seeing a snowmobile well in the winter, but I figured the likelihood of us encountering a snowmobile was pretty low. We found this cool old knobby tree along one of the trails.

We also had an excellent Easter walk at the Arboretum. I thought we might have a chance to see some flowers and we could embrace my inner Dickinson by connecting with God through nature.

We did find a few flowers, but the highlights were Barley's smiles on our walk. We also took a few "tree hugging" photos for the #HugATreeForHolden campaign that's going on right now. They're using the hashtag to collect photos for their Earth Day display, so we showed several trees our love during our walk. We are so lucky to have the Arboretum close by!

After our strong start, though, the rest of the week was a little tougher. On Tuesday, a thunderstorm came during agility class--combine the thunder with Barley's newest frenemy classmate and I had a neurotic pup on my hands by the end of class, so we skipped our normal post-agility walk. On Wednesday, we had to squeeze in walks between rainstorms. Then yesterday, I came down with the 24-hour stomach bug my coworkers have been so generously passing around the last two weeks. I was able to get in a short walk after a long nap and a couple nauzene tablets. If you'd asked me on Sunday, I was sure this was going to be our first 30+ mile week of the year, but the universe thought differently and we ended with 25.06 miles this week.

I was feeling a little discouraged (even though I know that's an excellent number--I just had higher hopes for this week) until I woke up and saw that our wonderful FitDog Friday hosts, SlimDoggy, To Dog With Love, and My GBGV Life, awarded us with the 2015 FitDog Friday Mileage Award. Reaching our goals is easier when we've got such a great support system cheering us on.

To see all of the award winner, visit their posts from today and be sure to check out all of the awesome blogs participating in today's Blog Hop.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It Takes a Village

Recently, my friends with kids have been passing an article around Facebook about how our social media lives don't reflect our real lives because they only show the happy, fun, funny moments and leave out the hardships. I try to not let that be the case here.

Barley and I do have a lot of fun. She's silly and she's adventurous and she makes me laugh. But living with a reactive dog is hard.

What do you mean? I am the most serious dog in the world.

Last week, we had one of our hardest moments in a long time and I've spent the last week trying to process it.

Last week started a new 6-week session in our agility class. We got a new classmate this session, which is always a challenge for Barley because she's so sensitive to changes in energy in the class.

We've been with one of our classmates since our very first agility class over three years ago. Another one has been our classmate for over a year while a third has been with us for several months. They are the most wonderful, patient people in the world. They give us the space we need, but still love and accept my girl. They celebrate our successes in class and support us when we're struggling. They are never impatient when I'm struggling to remember which side is my right and which one's my left. When Barley gets nutty, they understand. They never make me feel like Barley is a "bad dog"--and there have been classmates in the past that have expressed those sentiments.

Six weeks ago, we got our first new classmate in a while, but they fit in beautifully. The dog is an adorable beagle mix who has a funny battle cry every time he charges into a tunnel and his mom is good at chatting with us from a distance to keep Barley sane.

This time, I was worried, though. Our new classmate is a Jack Russell mix--and if you've been with us a while, you might remember that Barley's arch nemesis is a Jack Russell our neighbors own and leave out in the yard unsupervised, so if Barley and I are outside and it sees us, it will charge at us and then when I shove Barley inside and slam the door, it attacks our French doors. Barley can be dead asleep and hear that dog barking outside and she'll wake up and start tearing around the apartment looking for it. If she happens to see it out the window, she cries. It is a sound I have never heard her make at any other point in time.

Barley can hang out 6-feet from a deer, but she can't even be on the same planet as a Jack Russell.

So, when I saw our new classmate, I was worried. We warmed up a bit with some heeling exercises and Barley had noticed the new dog, but she was staying focused on me. When we went around the room introducing ourselves, I gave my standard "we keep our distance in class--not because we aren't happy you're here, but because Barley's a little weird with other dogs" speech and then it was time to set jumps. What happened next is really a blur.

Barley and I have a jump setting routine. Some of our classmates can put their dog on a sit-stay at one end of the room and move from jump to jump, but Barley needs me to help her; if I leave her to her own devices, the other dogs are too big of a distraction for her. We approach a jump, I have her sit, and then I set the jump while still holding on to her leash. It also helps us reinforce sitting and staying in front of a jump until I release her, so it might slow us down on setting jumps a bit, but our class is good at helping me manage Barley and there are enough of us that things get done quickly despite our routine.

I saw the new dog walking past us--at a distance--from the corner of my eye. I said, "What's that?" and Barley looked at me. The next thing I know, she's flying across the room towards the little dog. Theoretically, the leash should have had to not only get out of my hand but also go over the bar I was holding. It should have been more difficult for her to get away from me, but it happened. And Barley's fast, so she was flattening her new classmate before the owner could pick her up. Everyone was fine (at least physically--I might still be traumatized) and our trainer assured us that because Barley inhibited her bite and just slobbered on her dog that her intentions were to offer a correction to the dog not to hurt her, but it doesn't make it easier to wrap my mind around things.

In addition to having wonderful classmates, our trainer is the best. She immediately lined us up with the dogs on the outside and herself in between us and had us heel together and get the dogs focused again. Then when it was our turn on the floor, the new dog went into the crate room and stayed in her mom's arms (just in case Barley decided to run in there). When it was the new dog's turn, Barley and I went in the hallway where I could watch the dogs working on the floor but Barley could have a distraction-free zone to relax.

Our new classmate has proven to be as wonderful and patient as the rest of our class. When I checked to make sure her dog was ok, she told me that her dog had probably sassed Barley as they walked by (and another classmate who was nearby when the fracas occurred told me that Barley had been reacting to a stare down from the new dog--but I can't confirm that and it doesn't make it less nerve-wracking). I brought some homemade treats for the class this week to try and diffuse any lingering awkwardness and make sure our class knows how much we appreciate them.

She smiles even in exile.

We'll be continuing our exile during the little dog's turns to give Barley a chance to decompress and they'll probably be spending time in the crate room during all of our turns. This week was better, but Barley is still very focused on her new frenemy and on her first turn ran to where she'd seen the new dog across the room while we got the course at the beginning of class. As soon as she realized she wasn't there, she came back and we had a good turn--but I think this will be a long journey for us. One thing I'm learning, though, is that Barley and I are not alone on this journey. We've got the most amazing support system along for the ride with us and we couldn't be more thankful for them.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Barley is the New Poetry

It's National Poetry Month, which is always a bittersweet time of the year for me. I love poetry (hence the whole pilgrimage to Massachusetts with Barley last year). I get giddy when I see new poems by Billy Collins or Ted Kooser. I geek out when I get to talk about Emily Dickinson in class. Once upon a time, I used to love writing poetry, too. I would see these little things--my clothes tumbling in the dryer at the laundromat, for example--and all the sudden I would see the world in a whole new way. Then I'd process that experience in a poem.

I still have those experiences--a squirrel sitting on a tombstone, trash appearing from beneath the melting snow--but I haven't written a poem in years. I can count the number of poems I've written since January 3, 2011 on one hand. I've written down a lot of lines to poems, but a few lines is as far as I ever get.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the decline in my poetry started when I adopted Barley. Poetry hurts. Not in the bad way. I imagine it's like the hurt my sister recalls when she thinks about how her quads felt after her first half marathon. Poetry is the kind of hurt that happens when you've given something everything you have.

Barley is the same way. Living with a reactive dog takes everything I have. Every last bit of energy and emotion I have goes to managing Barley. While I love our walks and they can be great stress relief from work, they aren't necessarily relaxing either. I have to be hyperaware of our surroundings so that I can see distractions and triggers before Barley does and help her work through those challenges. I have to keep my anxiety, fear, excitement in check to keep Barley calm.

Last night, I had the pleasure of hearing former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove read some of her poetry. She started the reading by paraphrasing Rilke and saying anything you love doing well is hard, but you love doing it, so it doesn't feel like work.

I kind of want Rita Dove to be my life coach.

That used to be how poetry was for me. It was hard. It hurt. But I loved it. Now that's how Barley is. Living with her is hard. It's exhausting. Sometimes, it really hurts. But it never feels like work because I love Barley and I love training with her.

Who wouldn't love living with this smile?

I haven't figured out how to have both Barley and poetry in my life, though. They both require so much of me and I don't know if there's enough of me for both. But I do know that since adopting Barley I've had so many minute yet life-changing experiences that I haven't fully processed. I'm not the same person I was 4 years ago, but I do know that I still need poetry in my life. 

Otherwise, how do I process things like Barley not being able to be near most other dogs, but not batting an eye when a deer starts to approach her? Or the way that the shadows of trees sprawl across the ice on a pond? Or having my parents move 13 hours away after I relocated to be near them? Or walking through a Korean War exhibit with my grandpa and hearing about his experiences in the war?

We had another visit with our deer friend this week. This week it ran out of the thicket to see us.

This has been a rough week for Barley and me. Sunday night Barley ate two bags of jerky treats--including parts of the bag--while I was in the shower (she is back to being crated for moments like that now) and she threw up 9 times and I cleaned my carpets until 2 a.m., so Monday was a rest day. We also had some drama in agility class that I'm still processing--everything is fine, but it's added to my exhaustion--so we've been a little off our groove this week, but still managed to get 26.08 miles this week. I'm adding a new goal for us to achieve by the end of the year--somehow I need to find a way to make room for Barley and for poetry because if I don't keep myself mentally fit, I won't be able to keep Barley fit.

Hope everyone is having a happy FitDog Friday and a wonderful National Poetry Month!