Holiday Love from Joan

Blessings of the Festivals of Light (Solstice, Hannukah, Christmas)
And a Happy Health New Year from our hearts to yours

A Shaggy Dog Tale

Mitzi the Poodle, as you can see in the photo, is tall and wiry like a greyhound. She is a svelte 57 pounds. Little Lola is shorter and stockier- 65 pounds of determined young muscle.

Mitzi’s beloved mate Milo, a huge white standard poodle, passed away on a hill beneath the stars on Memorial Day of 2020. We buried our noble boy near the house with a few friends in socially-distanced attendance. Mitzi immediately descended into mourning. At mealtimes she would stand with head bowed looking at the empty place where Milo’s bowl once stood next to hers. Then she’d skulk off without even sniffing her own bowl.

Little by little she was wasting away. Gordon, chief canine chef, created endless varieties of deluxe “pelletini” (kibble with various yummy accoutrements) to pique her appetite.  Still Mitzi starved herself. We were heartsick for her and Milo both.

What could we do? Perhaps a new puppy might help.

I visited the website of Mitzi’s breeder, Sandy. No puppies available. Sigh. But hoping against hope, I called her anyway. Sandy was incredulous that her website was averaging 1000 hits a week. Everyone wanted a pandemic puppy. Shelters were empty and some breeders had 2-year wait lists. But I could feel the slightest tickle of possibility. Somehow, some way maybe Sandy could find us a puppy.

Miracle of miracles, she had kept 2 puppies from a previous litter as potential breeders. One turned out a little smaller than hoped for, so after listening to our sad tale, Sandy agreed to sell that 6 month old pup to us.

We hopped in the car and drove 7 hours to retrieve our new baby. Lola was a big bundle- a 50 pound chunk of pure, wild, unbridled affection. Mitzi took one look at her, put a paw over Lola’s back to let her know who was boss, and fell instantly in love.

Mitzi is actually Lola’s aunt (I won’t bore you with a recitation of the lineage), but they recognized each other as kin at first sniff.  Lola kept trying to nurse, following Mitzi around and nuzzling her belly. Mitzi allowed Lola to use her bed, eat from her bowl, and take possession of her toys. A proud mother at last, she began to eat and frisk around like a puppy herself.

Mitzi’s days of mourning were done.

We had visions of the perfect poodle family, thus hired a dog trainer forthwith. After months of weekly private lessons, we were admitted to doggie play groups. All masked up, we drove the girls to a big frozen field to cavort in the cold with other pandemic pooches. The drill was to let the dogs run around together while the parents helped socialize them. When a pup bounded up to you, the idea was to get them to sit and then feed them a high power reward.

Good thought. But alas, most of the puppies were riled up and running wild. They often jumped on people who failed to make them sit, but treated them anyway. Uh oh. The best way to create a lasting behavior is to give intermittent reinforcement. They’re always hoping to hit the jackpot, so keep repeating the behavior no matter how rarely it pays off. This is how our girls learned to pounce instantly on other canines, and to rush over to strangers and harass them with vigor.

After months of training, arghh! We found ourselves co-habiting with a couple of vandals. They were delighted to sit, stay and come like perfect ladies in the comfort of the living room, but we had the leash the potential malfeasants whenever we took them out. Danger lurked everywhere. If they spied a squirrel, a person, or God forbid a bicycle, they’d team up and go after it. They are big. We are small. They pulled. They bolted. We landed face down in the dirt on several occasions.

I began to develop a serious psychological syndrome- SDE- small dog envy. We had arrived at a choice point. Either we got the poodles in hand, or they would have to remain under house arrest.

But hope reigns supreme. We checked the girls in at a superb board and train facility for two weeks this fall while we visited family back east. Upon our return, the savvy staff managed to train us as well. The dogs weren’t the problem. We were. Being a good doggie parent requires mindful attention, absolute consistency, and showing up as a firm and patient boss.

It’s a privilege to have an intimate, co-evolving relationship with members of a different species. On Saturdays we enjoy group classes at the board and train where dogs and their parents have great fun learning together, and where dogs know exactly what sit means, even in the midst of distractions. They are all so proud of themselves. The Saturday before Winter Solstice, Santa appeared in class and we all sat for family photos.

The moral of this shaggy dog story? When at first you don’t succeed at something you really want to pull off- like training your dog- then try, try again. Whatever your heart’s desire, persist in that intention. Hang in there. Honor it and yourself. Let obstacles become motivators. You really can change your world one small, conscious choice at a time.

My intention for 2023 is to walk two miles a day with the dogs. Little by little, choice by choice, we’re gradually creating a new level of joy and wellbeing.

What’s your intention for 2023? If it involves building inner strengths, being with like hearted others, enriching your soul, enhancing your wellbeing, writing memoir, celebrating the seasons and cycles of nature and life, or who knows what might pop up, please visit my website and check out my courses for the new year and other appearances.

With a heart full of love, Joanie

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