Category Archives: dogs

Thoughts On Dogs and Aging

My prior blog piece shared aspects of our 14th Birthday party for Buddy and his sister, Howdy.

A grown up Howdy

A sampling of doggie themed tasty appetizers

We enjoyed feting these two old Border collies. Just think of it; 14-dog years are the equivalent of 94-human years. Such graceful aging by both dogs justifies giving them a party.

A young Buddy posing

It is hard for me to wrap my head around how Buddy who once was so active, athletic, and energetic, has become so old acting. I first observed him changing by his weight loss. Buddy has always been thin but he became even more so. I suspected Bella and Little Jack, our other dogs, were eating his food. We began taking precautions against this. Finally I added canned food to his dry food (plus table scraps) along with keeping a watchful eye during doggie dinner time. No poaching from the senior dog!

Buddy in recent years has developed a pained gait. No longer does he sprint across the pastures, spring across cattle guards in a single bound, and ferociously herd cattle fifty times his size. No, Buddy now gingerly walks cattle guards, has a mincing, head down gait and is subject to having his rear end collapse unceremoniously out from under him. He now even requires my assist getting into the cab of the pickup or into the bed of the pickup. Traveling in the pickup, though, is probably still his favorite activity. Buddy accepts my help, but I sense he doesn’t like his need for such help. But he still loves to ride in the pickup, traveling across the ranch with the breeze flapping his ears and barking happily. Watching this, I know his life is still good and enjoyable.

Buddy sleeps more now. I’ve noticed like Buddy my own fondness for afternoon naps. If he is not working on the ranch with me (which basically consists of Buddy sleeping under the pickup while I work), he travels among his many dog beds strewn throughout the house. He simply requires more rest now than he did previously. When sleeping I often see his legs moving. I imagine that Buddy is dreaming of prior exploits on the ranch, or else dealing with a particularly gnarly cow in his dream state.

Enjoying the warmth of the sun and a good nap

I’m surprised by how well Buddy has accepted his limitations. When Trudy and I return from a trip to town, we are always mobbed by our dogs. They bark and act as if we have just returned from an extended round-the-world trip. Buddy, however, can no longer compete with the other dogs for our attention and instead holds back. While Little Jack and Bella jump up, bark, and ferociously compete for our attention, Buddy hangs back, merely cutting his milky eyes in our direction with a look of hopefulness plastered across his graying doggie muzzle.  I can tell he loves it when we approach him and pay him special attention, while also needing to defend him from the onslaught of the other dogs.

Buddy long ago lost his position as dominant dog in the house. He can’t stand up to Bella or even Little Jack who are stronger now and more assertive than he. He seems reasonably content with his lowered station in life and doesn’t seem to fight the inevitable. This reminds me of humans on the brink of retirement who often say, “You just know when the time is right.”

Buddy shows resilience in the face of getting old. He accepts his infirmities, loss of station, and limited mobility. However, he does require greater affection and petting. He warts us for petting almost constantly. I wonder if his neediness for his human companions’ approval helps to mitigate his sense of loss in the other areas. While he no longer can achieve the redemptive power of work, he has put away a lifetime’s worth of impressive works.

For this, my old dog, I say thank you.

It seems to me there is wisdom for humans in watching our pets age. Perhaps Max Ehrmann in his Desiderata said it best:

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth…

He continues:

You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Wolves Beat Dogs in Teamwork Test

A video in the NY Times from Wednesday, November 8, 2017 got me thinking. The video produced by James Gorman made the provocative statement that wolves may be smarter than dogs. Could this be true?  More precisely the video claims wolves are smarter than dogs at learning the rope pull test. This task is where two animals of the same species have to work cooperatively to achieve success.

The rope pull test is commonly used test to determine cooperativeness among two animals and to compare among various species. The test consists of a tray around six feet long or so that has two tasty treats in plain sight but unavailable behind a screen. The two animals must simultaneously pull on a rope, at the ends of the slide, thus pulling out the sliding tray amd making the two treats available for consumption. As it turns out wolves learn this task quickly and work cooperatively. Dogs not so much. Other species able to perform the task include elephants, parrots, monkeys, and rooks (black birds). Dogs truly struggle with this task but can eventually learn it.

The explanation provided for dogs’ slowness to learn is that they are not used to working cooperatively with other dogs. Yes, dogs work with humans exceptionally well, such as with bomb sniffing, herding sheep, riding surfboards and skateboards, protecting homes, and sniffing out corpses in forensic investigations. But these are activities dogs do with humans, not in cooperation with other dogs.

Bella on the left and Little Jack on the right

 

Wolves, on the other hand, don’t work with humans but work with members of their pack for survival. If you think about it, this all makes pretty good sense, . Adaptability is after all important for survival. Dogs must adapt to their human companions and make them happy while wolves must adapt to their  pack and become successful hunters.

But this video in the NY Times got me wondering. Are my dogs capable of working together? If so, what can they do cooperatively with each other? I have shared over the years in this blog many examples of my dogs working with me to herd cattle. But this is a task they do in combination with me who is directing them to some extent (at least that is my illusion as de facto leader).

It didn’t take me long to find an example of my dogs cooperating with another dog. Not long after viewing the video I saw Bella, my female Border collie, and Little Jack, our “Texas brown dog” take off on a spontaneous hunting mission. You see, Jack is determined to save the world from what he must see as the scourge of armadillos and squirrels. Just moments before he had spotted an armadillo. After quite a chase, the dogs caught the armadillo. Jack tried to kill it on his own but the armadillo was too strong and pulled out of his bite. Jack held onto the tail of the armadillo and proceeded to ski behind the powerful animal, dragging Jack toward its burrow.

Bella then swooped in went after its head, trying to kill it. Together they managed a successful hunt that neither one of them alone could have pulled off. This hunting duo has killed at least four or five armadillos recently, making them highly effective hunters so long as they work cooperatively. Incidentally they act incredibly proud of themselves, showing extreme excitement and rapid panting after returning from a prolonged absence in which it becomes obvious had been a hunt.

This strikes me quite clearly as cooperation in my dogs. But is it not the only example. I’ve taken to going for a walk for my health most afternoons around 4:00. Not too surprisingly at around this time when usually working at my computer, two dogs will show up at my desk. It can be any two of them.  In tandem they will nose, scratch, whine, and otherwise manipulate me out of my chair. I am then herded unceremoniously toward the door and made available for their afternoon walk.

I have a theory as to why two come at me at a time.  When previously just one dog took on this task, I assumed he/she just needed to go outside to pee and I would promptly put the dog outdoors. They quickly learned a single dog strategy was ineffective.

Well there are two examples of my dogs working cooperatively with one another. There are others I will share in a later blog piece. Please dear readers share your examples. I plan a follow up piece and may be able to share your experiences with other blog readers. Let me hear from you!

At The End Of The Road

 

You might recall the stray dog that wandered onto our ranch several years ago that we named Little Jack Kerouac. We named him after the author of the same name who wrote On The Road and who was the forerunner of a beatnik. Our Little Jack had been wandering the county roads of Gillespie County for months and had traveled many miles when the skinny pup was finally herded into a corner of our yard by our Border collies. The small brown dog was half-starved and intensely fearful. His fear, nevertheless, relented before a succulent piece of fried chicken, prompting the little brown dog to climb into my arms.

Despite his bad condition from his long tenure as a road dog, it became apparent that he had been neutered and house broken. These aspects suggested at one time Jack had enjoyed a close relationship with a human friend.

Yours truly ready to work on the ranch with assistants Jack and Bella.

We still don’t know what all he encountered as a road dog and Jack isn’t talking. We suspect he must have scrounged whatever he could find to eat including roadkill. We know Jack is a canny survivor.

His breeding has proved an ongoing mystery. When asked what breed he is, we finally gave up guessing and simply began replying, “He’s a Texas Brown Dog.”

Since Jack’s arrival, let’s just say… he’s matured and settled in well. He has adapted to his new home on a hill at the end of his very long road.

Sometime ago I wrote several blog pieces on Jack stealthily loading himself into various vehicles and stowing away for rides. We do not think he was trying to escape his adopted home but that he merely wanted to go for rides. Fortunately, after a few bad moments of being unable to locate Little Jack, we were able to place phone calls and have him returned.

Jack is no longer the skinny road dog he once was. He has, in fact, chunked up. He still loves to go on ranch walks, run errands and ride in the pickup. Whereas the Borders ride in the bed of the pickup, Little Jack proudly expects to sit on the console in the cab where, if hot, the AC is on and, if cold, the heater warms him. He likes his creature comforts.

When our Borders are let out of the pickup to exercise by running up the hill to the house, Jack preemptively jumps off the console and hides in the back seat. No silly running up the hill for Little Jack. Why get out of a perfectly good pickup and wear out my foot pads?

At night Jack has inched his way closer and closer to the head of the bed. Initially when he came into our lives he slept under the bed or on a nearby dog bed. He later transferred to the foot of the bed. Now Trudy and I find the little rascal snuggled between us, his head lying on a soft pillow. Imagine going from the hard life of a road dog to a pillow top mattress!

Jack likely thinks, “Heck with Pearl Buck’s ideas of a place in the sun, I have a soft mattress in an air conditioned home.” When asleep, he becomes an almost immovable lump. If Trudy or I get up in the middle of the night, he migrates to the vacated warm spot, claims it, and is difficult to dislodge.

It’s said every dog has its purpose. The purpose of our Border collies is clear, herding our cattle. Jack’s purpose has been harder to determine. Surprisingly, he sometimes has helped the Border collies with herding. But mainly Jack is a varmint dog and represents an absolute terror for squirrels and armadillos. This job of protecting the world from squirrels and armadillos, though, is not full time for our Little Jack.

Several years ago my mother came to live with us and it was then that we learned what Jack’s real job was–companionship. My elderly mother would sit on the couch for hours with Jack snuggled up against her, stroking his furry head. He returned her affection with gentle licks and made his belly available for endless scratching. Mom and Jack became thick as thieves, although we worried my Mom might rub Jack’s head bald.

“I think I can still feel the pea!”

My mother possessed a huge capacity to love, and in her final years she so enjoyed Jack’s companionship. Jack became a willing recipient for her love, and in turn he reciprocated his love for her. I’m convinced Jack made her final days much happier.

I suppose companionship is the major role for many dogs. Dogs have such an amazing ability to relate to humans, to sense their emotions, and to offer their unconditional love. It takes all kinds of dogs, but Jack has stolen our hearts and in their places left behind his paw prints.

The Lovely Couple Plus One

Katie, Kevin, and Olive in their Engagement Photo

Our daughter’s upcoming wedding is the really BIG news in our family. Katie and Kevin O’Neal will wed next month. We couldn’t be happier for the lovely couple.

It should be no surprise that with Katie growing up in our animal-loving family, she became an avid animal lover herself.

About five years ago while volunteering at the Dallas dog shelter, Katie fell in love with a mongrel dog and adopted her. They have been extremely close ever since. Olive has supported Katie through the emotional turmoil of a major job change, watched her dispatch several boyfriends, and survived several scary thunderstorms that deposited huge limbs in their front yard and mere feet from their house and car.

Olive is long, low slung, with the head and bark of a German Shepherd. While she looks like a dog put together by a committee, she has an incredibly sweet disposition.

Kevin has told me that he knew if he were to win over Katie, he would first need to win over Olive. While Kevin has a terrific sense of humor, there is some truth to his statement. Kevin takes care of Olive when Katie is out of town. He takes Olive on walks and has over time completely won her over.

Of course Olive goes on walks with Katie and Kevin

When Kevin proposed to Katie, she accepted his proposal of marriage. Posted below is Olive’s response as well to Kevin’s proposal. You see Olive asked me to post her answer. for all to see May the three of them have a wonderful marriage with best wishes and congratulations to the lovely couple plus one.

Dog Lessons on Living

Forty years of practicing medicine and having lived long enough to acquire some gray hair have allowed me to observe people dealing with illness and impending death. These challenging periods prove difficult for sure , but I believe our pets can help to cope with and even model helpful behaviors that benefit their owners. The mindfulness of the pet owner becomes necessary in order to learn these pet-assisted lessons.

At our house we’ve had two experiences that I wish to share that have brought me to this conclusion. Our Border collie, Buddy, unfortunately injured himself many years ago while leaping over a cattle guard. I found him shortly after the accident, dragging his paralyzed hind limbs. We were to learn that Buddy had ruptured a disc that had extruded into the spinal canal and traumatized his spinal cord. After evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation Buddy slowly recovered. He now has the reasonable use of his hind legs and moves about without any assistance. For this we are incredibly grateful.

Buddy had always loved to run and herd cattle. His racing around the ranch with his tongue flapping deliriously and with a goofy look plastered across his muzzle has for me defined unbridled enjoyment. With time he has regained the ability to both run and herd, although not with quite the same proficiency as prior to his injury. Nevertheless, Buddy still loves to ride in the pickup, watch the cattle, and when needed to jump out of the bed of the pickup and do a stint of herding.

It strikes me that Buddy during his convalescence never gave up on himself, nor did he permanently abandon his valuable role as chief herder on the ranch. Despite lingering weakness, he continues to carry out his job with typical Border collie passion and enthusiasm. A job for a Border collie is vital. As the old saying goes, “If a Border collie doesn’t have a job, he’s liable to become self-employed.” Trust me, when this happens it’s never a good thing!

Buddy sleeps more now following his injury

Our second pet-assisted experience resulted with our Shetland Sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy, and occurred years ago when we lived in Lubbock. Taffy’s favorite activity and what she most anticipated was her evening walk. She would become so excited when we presented her leash for our walk. Unfortunately Taffy eventually fell ill and was diagnosed as having cancer. While we knew the cancer would eventually take her, we were given the encouraging, if incorrect, prognosis by her vet that she had at least weeks if not months to live.  Despite Taffy not feeling well, she still agitated quite demonstrably at the end of each day for her walk.

Taffy during her healthier days

I distinctly remember her recruiting us that last night. Trudy and I dutifully leashed up Taffy and began a slow trek around our block. Taffy seemingly sniffed  every tree we encountered and observed the goings-on in the neighborhood with her eyes glistening with excitement. Unfortunately despite her wanting to, her energy gave out a third of the way around the block. She simply was unable to muster the strength necessary to walk any further.

On recognizing this I reached down to gather our sweet dog in my arms and then continued our walk around the block. Taffy gazed out from the crook of my arm and noted the happenings of her final trip around the neighborhood. Later that night she died peacefully in her bed. I like to think Taffy died  happy having made one more glorious trip around her block.

The thing is, Taffy continued to do what she most enjoyed despite her serious illness. Her willpower and determination continued despite her substantial depletion of energy. It seems to me that a broader and more personal message exists for pet owners much like the messages both Buddy and Taffy have given us.

I will continue discussing this topic in a subsequent post and plan to give a few human examples. These people-related corollaries will come from my book, Carrying The Black Bag.

Please share your thoughts as to what you may have learned from your pet regarding illness or impending death.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Dogs and Storms

We experienced a tornado watch with lightning, thunder, and almost two inches of rain. While I am always pleased when rain falls on the ranch, Buddy, our senior Border collie, doesn’t see it quite the same way.

Buddy is on the right

You see, Buddy is scared to death of storms. During a storm he will either hide under the bed, crawl behind the toilet in the bathroom, or take cover in my closet. The latter is rather poetic since that’s where he was born almost twelve years ago.

I worry about Buddy’s bladder capacity during these storms but have found him difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge from his safe spot. Last night I stuck my head under the bed and tried to talk him into going outside. Buddy who is normally very well mannered and responds immediately to commands, stared right back at me, as if he had suddenly gone deaf and paralyzed.

I sensed he was telepath-ing me a message that went something like this, “You must be nuts Buster if you think I’m getting out from under this bed in this terrible weather!!!” When I increase my encouragement to the extent of physically trying to remove him, Buddy growls. It is not a menacing growl nor one that worries me. He would never bite me but his lack of enthusiasm for going outside becomes quite clear.

Poor Buddy, thunder visibly shakes him up. His eyes become furtive, he shivers, and he takes immediate cover. With his dog ears, he knows when a storm is approaching far earlier than his seemingly deaf, slow footed human companions. (Our good points consist of feeding him, having cattle to herd, and letting him ride in a pickup.) I know we could get Buddy some doggy Xanax but the storms are pretty rare and, well, I just haven’t gotten around to it.

Buddy is getting on in years but his tolerance for storms is not improving with age. Typically after feeding the stock and doing ranch chores in good weather, he retreats behind a screen in the living room where we have his dog bed (actually one of three). There he can look out from beneath the screen, avoid the canine rambunctiousness of Jack and Bella, stay out of the human traffic patterns, and get a good nap. We refer to this corner of the living room as “Buddy’s Office.”

If the weather turns bad, Buddy slinks off to the bathroom, my closet, and at night to under our bed. He actually is able to find safe places which convinces me this dog is really safety conscious.

The storms bother Little jack not one bit. Jack, our “Texas Brown Dog” adopted us three years ago after surviving on the road for over a month. Guess he got used to storms.

Bella, our female Border collie, has some wariness of storms in that this is the only time she becomes  affectionate. Last night during the storm she climbed up on my chest, put her head next to my neck, and laid there. This is most unBella-like behavior! She just doesn’t take well to affection. But last night she proceeded to lick my face with he raspy tongue until she had removed several layers of skin and acted like she had missed me for an eternity.

Am hoping for better weather tonight and a better night’s sleep.

Bella on the left and Jack on the right

Bella: My Canine Silky Sullivan

My two Border collies, Buddy and Bella, love to race up the hill to our front yard. Buddy jumps out of the pickup and takes off at full stride while Bella instead lags far behind. Given Buddy is the alpha male, this behavior may spring from her respect for his dominance.

Bella on the left. Jack refuses to get out the pickup, instead demanding to ride up the hill.

Bella on the left. Jack, our so-called “Texas Brown Dog” on the right always refuses to get out the pickup. “Those silly Border collies, jumping out of a perfectly good pickup.”

 

About halfway to the finish line during this quarter mile sprint, in a fashion reminiscent of the thoroughbred racehorse, Silky Sullivan, Bella will lay back her ears, arch her back, hasten her pace, and rocket ahead like a low flying missile. At the last cattle guard that requires Buddy to tiptoe over it, young Bella will launch herself airborne, flying by or over a creeping Buddy. She then lands first at their seemingly agreed upon finish line, our front yard.

Many reading this post, may not recall Silky Sullivan- and for very good reason. He was a large red stallion whose racing feats occurred in the late 1950s. It will take someone from my generation or older to recall him. Silky Sullivan was known to have fallen behind as many as 41 lengths, only to come on like gangbusters and win by three lengths. His running style became synonymous with victory despite incredibly long odds.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Vh8vyCQRV4

Perhaps Silky Sullivan is best known for his appearance at the 1958 Santa Anita Derby where he fell behind over 30 lengths only to overtake the other horses and win the event. He became known as the “California Comet” and likely caused many instances of heartburn among the bettors.

Bella, our female Border collie, implements this unusual running style. She seems unwilling to race head-to-head with Buddy early in their races, but Bella dearly loves overtaking him and flying across the finish line first.

I suppose some people also eschew head-to-head competition but still harbor the never-to-be-denied desire to win. This Silky Sullivan approach to life may not be limited to racehorses and dogs, but  may  include humans as well. Of course this behavior in humans may be more nuanced than it is in animals. Instead of an overt competitive edge, the desire to get ahead may be more subtle. What do you think? Do you know anyone who may demonstrate this “Silky Sullivan” approach to life? Do you ever show this type of behavior? Food for thought.