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The House of the White Dogs

In January my little building of four apartments became the house of the white dogs. Our neighbors across the hall were dog sitting for two little white fluff balls. They were both smaller than Cricket, about the same size as Butterfly, and pure white rather than apricot laced. I first saw them out the window on a walk and my heart felt them right away. Two little white dogs! Two happy, skippy, barky dogs tangling their leashes and going in opposite directions. I felt like I knew them already.

Cricket hears something in the hall and must investigate.

Cricket hears something in the hall and must investigate.

We didn’t know their names at first, but we knew they were boys, because their pee was more decorative and higher up on the snow. Cricket and Butterfly would butt heads trying to be closest to the pee, to sniff deeply of their new friends.

Cricket takes a deep sniff of the new pee.

Cricket examines the new pee.

Dual sniffing

Dual sniffing

            The girls finally got to meet the boys in person after a few weeks. Their names were Abu and Fritz, and once they could see each other it was a sniff fest with no barking. When I’d met them the day before, Abu had bared his teeth at me and did not want to be friends, but when it was dog to dog, they were fine.

This guy looks a bit like Abu. (not my picture)

This guy looks a bit like Abu. (not my picture)

This one could be Fritz. (not my picture)

This one could be Fritz. (not my picture)

            The boys barked almost as much as Cricket, which was an incredible relief. From downstairs, it was hard to tell which apartment was full of barking. I liked feeling welcomed each time we came and went from the apartment, as if the boys were saying that they wished they could go with us, and visit with Cricket and Butterfly, and enjoy our company. It was really just nice to know someone was there. Dogs are generous about noticing people, and making sure you don’t feel invisible or alone.

            There are other dogs in our complex. There’s Maxine, the pug, who is very busy taking care of her new human brother. There’s Delilah, the beagle, who likes to hike up the hill but hates the snow. There are Chihuahuas and Cocker Spaniels, and other smallish dogs. I don’t know if there’s an official ban on bigger dogs, but I think it would be hard for a Great Dane to manage all of the stairs and small spaces.

            I feel such a pull to see the other dogs who live here, especially when I can hear them barking from inside of their apartments when I take the girls out during the day. I dream of running around and opening all of the doors so we can have a puppy party in the backyard. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

            I think the boys have gone now, because there is no more barking across the hall. I listen closely for a stray bark or growl, but I can’t hear anything.

Thunder Shirt

            We bought Cricket a Thunder Shirt over the summer. We were having more guests over in the new apartment, and Cricket was making her (loud) feelings known. I felt bad for our guests because Cricket made them feel so unwelcome. We’d tried everything we could think of to calm her down, and then I kept seeing commercials for the Thunder Shirt and figured it was worth a try.

            Right out of the box, Cricket loved it. With the terrible reactions she’s had to sweaters, and jackets, and harnesses, over the years, I thought this would be a hard sell, but she was a fan. She jumped up and asked to wear it, and didn’t even bite me when I strapped the Velcro around her neck and belly. She looked quite attractive in it, actually. I never knew that gray was her color.

"I know I look good."

“I know I look good.”

            Cricket has no issue with thunder, actually. That’s her sister’s area. Butterfly is afraid of storms and car rides and loud noises and walking along public streets. Cricket’s fundamental issue is people. So, half an hour before a scheduled visit, I would put the shirt on her, and she looked cozy, svelte and stylish, with her hair puffing out at the edges.

"My butt looks big in this shirt."

“My butt looks big in this shirt.”

            But still, she barked. She needed to be held, and given plenty of treats, and even after she’d calmed down, any sudden noise or movement would start her up again. Eventually I worked out a mix of holding her in my lap, dangling her in the air, massaging her ears and tightening her Thunder Shirt, that kept her grumpiness at a low growl, for the most part.

            I wanted the Thunder Shirt to do magical things for Cricket, to calm her and make her feel safe enough to have no need to bark. I’m sure there’s a more proactive training method I should have put into play, instead of expecting the shirt to do all of the work, but I couldn’t figure it out.

            I kept trying the shirt, for visits, for outings, for random intervals during the day, and she still loved it, and kept barking.

Out visiting in her Thunder Shirt, in the rain. (Butterfly is modeling her plaid jacket and feeling beautiful.)

Out visiting in her Thunder Shirt, in the rain. (Butterfly is modeling her plaid jacket and feeling beautiful.)

            We tried Prozac too. Every morning Cricket had her pill with a piece of chicken (and Butterfly got to have a pill-free piece of chicken as well), but there was no improvement. If anything, Cricket was grumpier than before and more prone to isolating herself under the couch, between barking attacks at the front door.

            We haven’t bothered with the Thunder Shirt in a while. It has attached itself to the couch (with its Velcro straps) and is easily available, just in case.

The couch finds that Thunder Shirt very comforting.

The couch finds that Thunder Shirt very comforting.

            My hope is that, over time, Cricket will learn to tolerate guests. We’ve been handing out chicken treats to our visitors so they can bribe her, and she can associate them with good memories. And maybe I’ll give the Thunder Shirt another try, if only as a pretty outfit for Cricket to wear on special occasions.

Cricket finds comfort in her sister's tushy.

Cricket finds comfort in her sister’s tushy.

Peaceful.

Peaceful.

While You Were Barking

Dear Cricket,

This is an accounting of all of the things I have missed while you were barking.

You bark whenever someone opens a door: to the building, the basement, their apartment, a passing car, or a building across the street. Often this happens while I am watching TV. Inevitably the characters will be in the middle of revealing the heinous secret at the center of the plot when you start to bark. Thank God for the pause button. There never used to be a pause button on my TV remote. Clearly someone else has a dog like you.

Butterfly to Cricket - "Shh, I'm watching TV."

“Shh, I’m watching TV.”

You especially like to bark when I am on the telephone. I know that you do not like the idea that I could choose to pay attention to anything but you and that this is, in fact, truly painful.

"I am Cricket, hear me bark!"

“I am Cricket, hear me bark!”

I have noticed that recently you have been teaching your sister how to bark with you. Together you are a formidable Greek chorus, lamenting murder and mayhem, warning of death and destruction. Every once in a while, I wish you would sing a few sweet lullabies, but I don’t expect this to take place.

Butterfly - "I think I can bark, I think I can bark..."

“I think I can bark, I think I can bark…”

You bark over conversations your humans are trying to have, and successfully end them with your demands for attention. We do try to wait until you are resting quietly on the floor before having any kind of in depth conversation, but not all conversations are in depth, or planned. Sometimes I just think of something I want to say while I’m at the computer, or eating dinner, and you inevitably have something louder to say at exactly the same time.

You have been very successful at using your bark as a device to train your people. Just like we might use a pull on your collar, or a clicker, you use a bark. These are the lessons you have taught me:

“Mommy, you can’t eat all of that dinner yourself.”

“You must check the window to see if someone is racing towards us with an ax.”

“You can’t clean the poop off my butt!”

“You will not make friends with that neighbor, or walk towards that corner of the lawn to meet that dog.”

“You cannot put your feet on the floor without my permission. How dare you!”

Cricket, you rule with an iron fist. You are not a person whisperer. You are a person barker.

There are so many places that say, of course your dog can come in, if she is well behaved, which counts us out.

You make it very difficult to have conversations with our new neighbors, because as soon as they walk up the path, you see them, and start to bark and lunge and I have to pull you away and focus your attention elsewhere. I try to make sure I smile at the human to let them know that I am not rejecting them or agreeing with your assessment of them, but I’m not sure how much of that comes across.

You need to be watched around children who don’t understand that you have boundaries. There are certain dogs (Golden and Labs come to mind) who can tolerate being poked and teased, but you cannot, and I understand this. I try to teach children how to be polite with you and recognize when you are warning them away, but they, inevitably, ignore everything I say. I’m sure you can relate to that. This is why I have to intervene and pick you up when things get knotty. This is not an invitation for you to bite me.

(No comment)

(No comment)

You are fully present in every moment, hyper-aware, and hyper vigilant, which makes you very entertaining, but it also means that you can get over stimulated. I am not suggesting that you become someone else, or that you stop expressing yourself. I just wish that, sometimes, you could hold back on the barking, and communicate your feelings in a less car-alarm, the-world-is-about-to-end, sort of way.

Love,

Mommy

Cricket, the Town Sheriff

Cricket thinks she’s the Town Sheriff. She’s fluffy, and barely fifteen pounds, but she believes it is her job to protect her home, to the death if necessary. She rains barks on people, but she can’t discern between deserving targets and innocent victims.

Cricket, mid-bark

Cricket, mid-bark

As soon as we moved into our new apartment, Cricket realized that her greatest challenge, by far, is the Seven Eleven up the block. We live just around the corner from what is clearly the neighborhood hub. People fill the parking lot and the sides of the street and flow in and out all day, for the twenty varieties of coffee, a wall of sandwiches, miscellaneous doodads and a chance to schmooze.  Cricket thinks schmoozing will lead to chaos, so she barks warnings at truck drivers, moms, teenagers from the local high school, and men who hesitate to leave the safety of their cars.

Cricket's disapproving look

Cricket’s disapproving look

            As we walk past the Seven Eleven, there’s a bus stop and then a train station. A lot of innocent bystanders, waiting for transportation, see my cute fluffy dogs and get a big surprise when Cricket opens her mouth with a blast of rat-a-tat-tat. More than one victim has clasped his heart in shock. (Women are never shocked. I find this interesting.)

Cricket also guards the car

Cricket also guards the car

            When people come to visit us, Cricket’s bark-o-meter gets jammed and she can’t shut it off. She barks at anyone who dares to enter her sacred space and continues to bark even after they leave, running to the door as if to say, “and another thing!”

The only way to calm her down is to hold her in my arms, or let her climb on my head and neck like a monkey. With enough physical contact and reassurance, she will sputter down into an occasional rumbly growl. But if I let go, or, God forbid, put her down on the floor, all hell breaks loose again.

            Most visitors expect Cricket to quiet down, eventually. They figure, I’m nice, I’m not here to rob anyone, she’ll figure that out and give up the fight. Nope.

            Cricket barks at the maintenance men when they come to mow the lawn. She barks when she hears a door closing in another apartment, or footsteps in the hall, or the mail being delivered. When she’s on the stairs or in the lobby of our building, her voice resonates like she’s barking inside of a tuba.

I had hoped that Butterfly’s calmer demeanor would help Cricket reexamine her prejudices and maybe learn some Zen, but the improvements, in this area, have been minor. If anything, Cricket has recruited Butterfly as her deputy.

Deputy Butterfly

Deputy Butterfly

The Barking Tour of Washington, D.C.

 

Back in January, we went to Washington, DC to celebrate my great aunt’s 97th birthday, a month late. She’s a very young 97, still my Grandpa’s feisty baby sister.

Mom visits her cousin and her aunt once or twice a year, and they’ve become very close. This is the cousin who lent us her NYC pied a terre after the hurricane when our power was out on Long Island. She and Mom are both painfully empathetic, and feel like they should have done more with their lives, even as they continue to choose to put their energy into other people instead.

A few years ago I gave Mom a list of questions and a tape recorder to bring with her on her visit to see her aunt. I’d been reading my grandfather’s unfinished memoir, and finding a lot of holes in the story, and I realized I had a potential treasure trove of information in my great aunt. I transcribed the tapes, listening over and over to get every word down, and I became very familiar with her voice and rhythm and the stories of her life. But I was looking forward to hearing from her in person. I was also eager to see her daughter and to meet her grand dog, Zoe.

We had to drive to D.C., because any other method of transportation, with both dogs, would have been untenable. I can’t even imagine the damage Cricket could do on a train.

We put the dogs in their harnesses, in their doggy beds, in the back seat of the car. Butterfly sat on her bed and drooled, but within seconds, Cricket was out of her harness and behind my neck in the front passenger seat. She moved around, as she usually does, between my neck, my lap, and her favorite spot, behind my back with her nose stuck behind Grandma’s shoulder. Her answer to anxiety is to stay as close to her people as possible.

Cricket the co-pilot

Cricket the co-pilot

The longest Butterfly had been in a car before, with us, was the half hour back from the animal shelter in November, so I didn’t know what to expect. She started out panting and drooling, but after half an hour she moved on to vomiting white foam.

Butterfly with her paper towel bib

Butterfly with her paper towel bib

We stopped the car, to clean and dry her bed, and to take both dogs for a walk to get some fresh air, but once Butterfly was back in the car the vomiting continued. Two and a half hours into the trip, I’d used up a whole roll of paper towels and half a box of tissues, and we had to stop at a super market for more.

Overall Butterfly vomited seven times.

We arrived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood at around four thirty in the afternoon and Zoë and her Mom came out to greet us. Butterfly was happy to have her paws on solid ground again. And even Cricket kept her volume at a low bark for the first meeting. We walked over to Zoe’s local dog park down the block, and met a lot of friendly and talkative Washingtonians.

Zoe demonstrated her unique poopie dance for us. She walked in second position plie, on her tippy toes, in a very large circle, before she finally felt ready to poop. Butterfly was fascinated by this variation. Where was the hopping and twirling? Why one big circle when you could do ten circles and a spiral?

Zoe is a Cockapoo, like Cricket, but Cricket is fourteen pounds and mostly white with apricot markings, and Zoe is 27 pounds, with red hair and a Golden Retriever-like personality. She loves everyone.

Once inside her house, Zoe galloped across the floor and leapt onto her seeing chair to watch the neighborhood through the window. I’ve been told that she barks, but I’m not sure I believe it of her. She has only one flaw, like Butterfly, occasionally she still poops and pees in the house. Her trainer taught her to respond to the words “potty outside” to help her differentiate between doing her business on the dining room carpet and out in the backyard. But that sounds too much like “party outside” to me. I’m afraid Zoe does her business in the house to get ready for the big party outside. She’s a very social girl.

Mom’s cousin is a devotee of take out menus. There is a precious folder in the kitchen with a menu from every restaurant in Washington DC. We ordered in and the dogs had Chicken Satay, Zoe’s choice.

Three girls eating all in a row

Three girls eating all in a row

After a night’s sleep, or collapse, at the hotel, we went back to the Capitol Hill neighborhood and walked around town with the three dogs. Everyone knew Zoë. We stopped in one store after another where the owners offered her and the girls special treats. There was the kitchen supply store and the children’s book store and the furniture and chotchkes store. You could tell it was a dog friendly neighborhood because there were silver dog bowls full of water at regular intervals along the street. Eventually, we sat at an outdoor café and fed the dogs pieces of our grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch.

Cricket and Butterfly at the book store (Zoe's on the other side of the door)

Cricket and Butterfly at the book store (Zoe’s on the other side of the door)

Zoe and her mom were approached on the street to volunteer in a program where kids learn to read by reading to dogs. Zoe would be perfect for the job. There’s just nothing indifferent or mean about her, and she would love the attention.

We were a funny looking group: Mom’s cousin in her ankle boot from a recent foot injury, me with my awkward stomping walk, and the dogs pulling in three different directions. But we had a good time and wore ourselves out completely.

After a nap, though, we were ready for the big event, dinner with my great aunt at her apartment. Zoe is an experienced elevator rider, but my girls were still struggling with the moving wall that tried to catch their tails. As soon as the elevator door opened on her grandma’s floor, Zoe raced down the hall to get to the apartment as fast as possible. She was clearly her Grandma’s girl. She slathered on the kisses and then ran inside to find the living room rug with the raised squares that was clearly designed for doggy back scratching.

Zoe's magic carpet

Zoe’s magic carpet

The girls followed Zoe into the apartment and sniffed every corner. Cricket started to bark, but her new people barked back, and she was shocked into silence, for a little while anyway. When we started to eat dinner, cooked entirely by my 97 year old great aunt, the dogs spread out on the floor of the dining room to rest. There were two different types of chicken on the table, which eventually led to whimpering that, surprisingly, did not come from either of my dogs. It was Zoe.

Zoe’s whimpering woke the other dogs and they started begging for chicken and searching through the bowls of dog food in the kitchen for other hidden treasures. Meanwhile, the humans listened to stories about the Carp that lived in the Bathtub, for years, and had to be shifted out of the tub whenever one of the humans actually needed a bath. I could hear my Grandpa in his little sister’s voice, his sense of humor, his magical glee about the absurdities of life.

I wish I could show you the raised eyebrow she adds to every story, but I’m not allowed to take pictures of her. She does exist though, I promise.

On our last morning in DC, Mom’s cousin took us on a driving tour of the city with Cricket barking her commentary on the Capitol building, the White House, the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial and everything in between.

We were there before the inauguration, so we got to see the porta-potties being lined up along the mall. Cricket barked at them too.

When it was time to leave, I gave Zoe a big hug and soaked up as much love as I could. The whole time we were there, Cricket never had a bad moment with her cousin. They ate together and slept together and walked together and Cricket, who growls at every dog she meets, couldn’t think of anything growly to say.

Butterfly slept in Cricket's bed the whole way home

Butterfly slept in Cricket’s bed the whole way home

Butterfly took a few drops of Pepto Bismal for the trip home, and Cricket was dosed with the doggy version of an anti-anxiety medication, so the seven hour ride home was largely uneventful, which gave me time to think about the trip. Zoe and her Mom and her Grandma were wonderful. The city was fascinating. Butterfly made a great impression with her little pink tongue. But Cricket was still struggling.

Except, there was one moment in the car during the drive around the city that morning. Butterfly was on my lap in the back seat, with Cricket stretched out next to me, temporarily quiet. Somewhere along the way, Butterfly rested her head on Cricket’s back, and Cricket let her stay there.

It’s a place to start.

Cricket, on my lap, and drugged

Cricket, on my lap, and drugged

To Bark Or Not To Bark

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The barker

The side effects of barking: dry mouth, people inexplicably avoid you, throat pain, strong abs.

Cricket barks at everyone. She barks at children who pass by. She barks the mailman to death. She barks at strangers walking up the street. I can’t teach her to be polite and reserve judgment. I can’t teach her that she’s pushing people away from me with her behavior. Cricket even barks at the wind.

Cricket stands at Grandma’s bedroom window, with three of her feet on the pillow and one on Grandma’s head, and barks at noises outside that seem threatening. Like children at play.

I toy with the idea of getting her a six shooter and a sheriff’s star to wear on her collar.

I wonder if Butterfly is sitting there in the hall listening to Cricket bark, and asking herself, “To bark or not to bark?” I’m afraid she will decide to emulate Cricket and bark more and more over time. But I hope she won’t. I hope she will continue to walk up into Cricket’s face and ask her, why are you barking now?

When Butterfly first came home, she was silent. I’d never met a non-barking dog in person and I wondered if she would be my first. But the second night she was home, she was in the kitchen alone, with a pet gate separating her from her new family, and she let out one deep bark, like a basso profundo coming from this little body, to let us know she did not like being alone.

She did it again the next day when Cricket was getting groomed in the bathtub. She was clearly afraid that Cricket was being tortured.

And now she lets out a few barks every day. It’s a more restrained statement than Cricket’s high pitched rush of verbiage. But it’s insistent and purposeful and she expects to be answered promptly. She barks at me in the morning, when she thinks I’m sleeping too late. She walks over to my head and stares at me, and then she barks.

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The student barker

My dream is that having Butterfly around will make Cricket feel more secure and she won’t need to be the security guard anymore. And the barking will calm down.

The other day, we were out walking and Cricket barked at a stranger who dared to walk down the sidewalk. Butterfly walked in front of Cricket to block her view of the man, and offered her tushy as an interesting sniffing opportunity. And Cricket stopped barking.

Cricket isn’t the only barker in our neighborhood. We have a barking chorus that gets set off at certain times. When one dog starts, others inevitably pick up the song. It’s call and response, or in the case of the basset hound, howl and response. If one dog notices someone passing by who needs to be remarked upon, the chorus sends the message to everyone along the street who needs to be warned.

My bedroom is in the attic and my windows collect the noise from the neighborhood as if everything is happening about an inch away from me, so the barkatorium is especially pronounced for me.

Maybe the point of the barking chorus is to teach me that barking, even in excess, is normal. It’s not just Cricket who barks like this. Dogs want to be understood as much as people do. They want to communicate with each other and feel connected to each other and to us.

The fact is, when we walk around the neighborhood I rely on the dogs to bark to let me know they are there. They make the world less quiet and lonely. They let me know that they see me and that my presence matters to them.

I don’t want Butterfly to bark as much as Cricket does, or with that vehemence, but I’m glad she knows how to bark and feels safe letting herself be heard. I want her to feel like she has the right to bark, and I want her to know that the old cliché about children, that they should be seen and not heard, is crap. Children and dogs need to bark in order to be seen and heard by the people who love them.

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The loved ones