Old Dog Energy and the Optimism of Puppies
Puppy school, a lovely beach, and wisdom from Bull Durham
I have claimed for the past couple of decades that I am “not a puppy person” and even that I would “never have puppies again,” which, as anyone with a working knowledge of mythology knows, means I was asking for it.
As a volunteer with the wonderful Boston Terrier Rescue of North Texas (BTRNT) I even established a bit of a brand identity as an adopter of wayward and complicated seniors.
Old dogs are a whole vibe. They have sewn their wild oats, chewed their home furnishings, and outgrown most of their manias. They have seen things and they need naps. If they pee on the floor, it’s not personal. None of our bladders are the architectural marvels they once were.
The old dog attitude reminds me of the quote from the movie Bull Durham when the aging mentor Crash Davis coaches the young pitcher to brush up his clichés for the media: “I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club.”
Now that I think about it, it’s more than a vibe. Old Dog Attitude, which I am now capitalizing, is a philosophy, a religion. It’s a path to enlightenment.
After losing four ancient dogs over the past few years, however, Mike and I decided we needed a longer interval between heartbreaks and adopted 10-month-old littermates, Pinky and Birdie. In order to civilize them a bit, we decided we’d send them to puppy school. First they had to go in for a day-long assessment.
The “Dog Center,” which advertises “lodging, daycare, training, swimming, [and] spa,” sits on a huge property that features a large farmhouse-style main structure. I arrived with the puppies early on a cold morning. White light and the sounds of barking and distant roosters chimed through the leaves of towering live oak trees. It took me a few minutes to realize that the young women milling about in lime green logo-ed fleece pullovers, stocking caps, and front-facing fanny packs full of “high value food treats” were not, in fact, dressed as elves or leprechauns, but were the trainers. They looked like they might break into little jigs. I had to sort out my facial expression to avoid giggling.
Our Elf she looked like she’d woken up having enjoyed about all of the naughty puppies she could stand. I assumed she knew what she was doing, though and took this picture of the girls not behaving nicely when I left.
When I picked the girls up after their day-long assessment, Elf brought out first Pinky and then Birdie, to talk to me at my car. Pinky was freaking all the way out and making it hard for me to hear the assessment. Elf asked if I had a crate in the car. I felt like a pro dog owner when I said I did. I picked Pinky up and poured her into our fabric-sided top-loader where she calmed down slightly.
While Birdie had earned high enough scores on her behavior to get to attend their “day school,” Elf explained with a slightly pained expression, Pinky was going to need remediation via private lessons first. She was fearful, overly dependent on her sister, and “a bite risk.”
“She bit someone?!” I was shocked. Both puppies had been extensively handled by lots of people, including my stepdaughter’s young children, and there had been no biting.
“No, but she had ‘whale eyes’ a couple of times, so she’s considered a bite risk.” My first thoughts were defensive—she’s just scared! She’s a Boston Terrier and they always look a little wall-eyed! But, Elf was the pro and I didn’t want to be the parent who had to come collect her kid after a biting incident later on.
Elf handed me three pages of notes, printed on front and back, stapled together. We started with the topic of “littermate syndrome.”
I had never heard of this syndrome and suddenly felt like a very irresponsible rookie dog owner.
Littermates, she explained, were doomed to be codependent messes and should have been adopted out separately. One would be the ringleader and the other’s life force would wither in the shadow of her more dominant sibling. The only thing that could make matters worse for the development of littermates is if both of them are female.
“Well, if you decide to keep both of them..” she started.
“We are keeping them.” I interrupted sweetly. “They’re Boston Terriers; I’m not planning to put them in obedience competitions. I just need them to stop barking when I say stop and quit chewing my furniture.”
She sent me home with more handouts and instructions to fill out another online questionnaire. She said she could start working on Pinky’s issues immediately and to call to schedule lessons. At home, we should feed the girls separately in their crates after moving the crates so that they couldn’t see each other; there was a whole list of homework to improve their independence.
Mike and I are both rule followers and did everything on the list except for calling to schedule the private lessons. We were going out of town for the weekend and thought we’d call after we got back.
Then we took a rented RV, with the girls, to Galveston for one of Mike’s races. They behaved pretty well. They enjoyed carrying tufts of dry seaweed along the shoreline and barking at gulls and the few other beach goers. We apologized for the barking with “they start puppy school soon!”
The tight quarters of the RV might have made them think we were all sharing a crate and that made them happy.
We got to walk on a beautiful strip of beach a couple of times before an icy wind storm blew in on Saturday. Despite living in Texas for most of my life, my experience with Texas beaches had left me with low expectations.
“That’s just because you’re remembering the tar ball days,” Mike said.
He was right. When I’d been to Texas’s beaches in the 80s, they’d been minefields of washed up jellyfish, venomous Portuguese Man o’ Wars, a type that could sting the daylights out of you even after they were dead, and black balls of sticky tar from the offshore oil rigs, which were blights on the ocean view, themselves. The jellies had such brightly colored tentacles—all curly neon pinks, blues, and greens—that they were avoidable. My sister called them “party balloons,” with a degree of irony inspired by fear and hatred.
The tar balls, on the other hand, were not avoidable and after a day at the beach my siblings and I would be polka dotted with the globs of goop. We could plan on spending some time trying to scrub them off with gritty soap, baby oil, and a garden hose before we were allowed indoors.
Apparently in the intervening years, at least on the patch of Galveston Island where Mike and I were, someone had realized that cleaner beaches might improve tourism and I saw no tar balls or dead jellies. The cold weather meant that there were few others on the beaches—mostly people fishing with long rods anchored in the sand or on jetties. It was lovely.
But, let’s discuss that concept of “high-value food treats,” touted as training methods by the Dog Center.
During one of our walks, the dogs found what I thought was a stick and when they started fighting over it, I wrestled it away from them. It was a dehydrated sea monster of some sort and they were obsessed with it. I kinda was, too, and took several pictures just because it was SO weird. Look at those jaws, the spikes on either side and up top. Shiver.
Apparently people who fish around the area throw fish heads and guts and other such delights into the brush where small dogs can find—and engage in death matches over—them. They also found some toad jerky—apparently a VERY high-value motivational item.
It was a nice little getaway, but it meant that I didn’t call to book the dog training until Monday of this week. I left a message saying that we’d be signing up right away and to please call back. Please, take our money. They haven’t called back. I feel like I’m being punished. I’m having a hard time not taking it personally on Pinky’s behalf.
I’m going to call the Dog Center, again, and beg them to take our little stinkers. Again. If they’re rejected by the Harvard of puppy schools, I guess I’ll start moving down the list of lesser programs.
Puppies are an investment with delayed return, but I’m at a point in my life where I’m more patient. I see bigger pictures and play longer games. Investing in making puppies easy companions feels like an act of optimism bordering on the radical. I’m shooting for that Old Dog energy.
I’m just happy to be here, doing my part for the ball club.
I just got a call from the Dog Center. Apparently, they’re overwhelmed and understaffed like everyone else. They estimate that they’ll have availability in May.
Love these two little scamps, and what fitting names! The photos are a great addition, too!
I miss those days…and love your writing!