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The Language of Tails

 

Cricket’s tail was docked in puppyhood and the bit that’s left is about two inches long, maybe less, but she uses what she has to her fullest ability. If she has a poopy issue left over after a walk and I manage to catch her and carry her into the bathroom, she uses her stub of a tail to protect that poop from being removed. Slam! Tail down. If she’s angry and barking at intruders, she lifts her tail and shakes it like a fist. If she’s excited, her tail spins around in a tiny circle, like a propeller lifting her off the floor.

Cricket's little nub

Cricket’s little nub

Cricket’s groomer, the one we like, decided to give Cricket a puffy poodle tail one time, like a cotton ball attached to her butt. It made it very difficult to understand Cricket for a few days, until I took out the scissors and trimmed it down so she could speak clearly again.

Cricket is very bright and she can think and express opposing ideas at the same time. She can be waving her tail in great excitement, and barking as if the world is about to end. She can wag her tail, but rest her head on her paws like she’s bored. She wants to make sure that she has expressed every dimension of how she’s feeling instead of just a simple, Hello, or I hate you.

Cricket's tails says, "I've got my eye on you," and, "I'm seconds away from giving you a thousand kisses."

Cricket’s tail says, “I’ve got my eye on you,” or, “I’m seconds away from giving you a thousand kisses.”

The only time Cricket’s tail and head and whole body are in full agreement is when Grandma comes back after being a way – for one minute, ten minutes, ten hours. Cricket’s little stub is wagging in circles and she’s crying and jumping and licking. She tries to jump into Grandma’s arms and fly herself across the room. I’m sure she’s had minor tail strains from these greetings, because the whirling little stub gets an amazing work out.

I read an article that said a docked tail can limit a dog’s ability to communicate; that dogs who approach a dog with a docked tail will be more circumspect, because they have a harder time reading the docked tail for signs of aggression or submission. I wonder if this has been an issue for Cricket. Maybe she senses the other dog’s apprehension and interprets that as aggression, and so she’s aggressive right back. Would her life have been completely different, and better, if they’d never docked her tail?

I wonder if, having a full tail to swing around, Cricket wouldn’t have to bark so much to get her point across. Maybe she feels like she has to scream because part of her voice has been muted and dampened.

Is there such a thing as a tail prosthetic?

To be fair, I think her little tail is cute and at this point I wouldn’t recognize her as Cricket with any other tail. This is who she is and its an integral part of her identity. But who would she have been otherwise?

I know a Golden retriever with a long, bushy tail, and she uses it not just to express happiness or outrage, but to bar her little poodle brother from passing by. She can swing that thing like a bat and knock all the chotchkes off the coffee table, or she can carefully tuck her tail out of the way, to be polite and demure. But Cricket doesn’t have those options.

Look at that glorious tail! (not my picture, because Cricket would not let me take such a picture).

Look at that glorious tail! (not my picture, because Cricket would not let me take such a picture).

Butterfly makes more simple sentences with her tail. Her tail goes down when she’s resting or concerned. When she’s excited and happy her tail swings full out – she makes circles in the air to announce her happiness. She waves her tail as a way of saying, Yes, I want a treat, Yes, I want to go outside, Yes, I’m the cutest puppy in the world!          When she’s a bit more sedate and formal, her tail sits up on her back like a plume and you can tell she is proud. She walks her girliest walk at these times, with her hips swinging gently from side to side. She’s not inviting interaction so much as walking the cat walk, to be admired from afar.

Butterfly's curly tail

Butterfly’s curly tail

I’d like to have a long fluffy tail, like a Golden Retriever. I would love to wave my tail back and forth and be giddy and free in telling people that I’m happy to see them. I’ve never been good at unrestrained expression; I tend towards understatement and reserve. But there’s something so wonderful about a dog waving her tail when she sees you. I’d love to be that person. I’d love to feel so secure in myself that I could tell people how much I care about them.

The happiness blur!

The happiness blur!

I wonder if we’d lose our capacity for denial with a tail so earnest and open and easy to read. Because I think these tails, this earnestness in dogs, is a big part of what we love about dogs. Even the angriest dog, because he’s honest about his anger, is easier to love than a human who masks what he’s really feeling.

I remember hearing about all kinds of human body modification surgeries that were becoming popular over the past few years – pointy ears were the most obvious, or the ear lobe expanders. I wonder if anyone has come up with a way of adding a tail, to be more like a dog. You’d probably have to take classes (from a dog?) in how to express yourself with your tail, and, knowing humans, we’d probably add a lot of complicated nonsense to get in the way of what we are trying to say. But it’s an interesting idea. On the down side, you’d have much more trouble finding clothes that fit, or a comfortable place to sit down.

 

The Sniffing Science

 

Cricket takes her sniffing seriously. Some dogs sniff the air, sniff a few potential pee spots, and feel satisfied with that, but Cricket has to do a grid search. She seems to have the backyard broken down into plots, invisible to the human eye. Her brain keeps track of where she smelled what, and in which combinations or concentrations. She chooses only a few zones to check during each walk so that she can do a thorough survey of the territory throughout the day. I’m sure if I were more observant, I would discover that after certain weather events, and at certain times of day, she checks specific areas of the backyard.

Cricket follows the sniff trail wherever it takes her.

Cricket follows the sniff trail wherever it takes her.

In any weather.

In any weather.

I am not a scientist. The idea of taking a chemistry class makes me want to vomit. But for Cricket, this sniffing science is nirvana. She has a lot of projects going at once. She has to check how the scent of her own pee decays as the hours pass, and then see how long the trace of squirrel scent lives on the base of the big tree, and then she has to see whose been pooping in her leaf pile – but that’s not so much an experiment as a territorial guarding maneuver. No one should be pooping on her leaf pile, except for her.

She also likes to check in on the plantings our neighbor has put into the plot by the front door. She’s sure he’s made mistakes in his watering times, and soil usage, and the distance between seedlings, and she tries to get her paws into the dirt to rearrange things to her specifications.

Cricket guards her knowledge closely and only shares a few tidbits with her sister Butterfly, and none with me. I think she whispers her findings to Grandma at night, but I can’t prove it, especially because Grandma sleeps through the recitation. Though maybe that’s where Grandma’s been getting all of her new gardening ideas.

Cricket tries to be disinterested in her sniffing. She covers each area equally and gives me the evil eye when I try to speed her past one location to another without allowing full computation of data values. But some things break through her scientific objectivity. Like a dead mouse. She doesn’t just want to smell the mouse and record its notes of moss and rot and ripe just-dead-ness, she wants to absorb those elements into her own skin, by rolling her head and neck into the carcass.

Science is supposed to be so orderly and logical and impersonal, to guard against subjectivity and assumptions that could spoil the accuracy of the results, but I’m pretty sure Cricket isn’t the only scientist who breaks out into a passion of excitement every once in a while.

Mushrooms!!!

Mushrooms!!!

I’d like to get Cricket a Go-Pro camera to strap to her head, with smell-o-vision and a good microphone to capture ambient sound. I think, if we could create a set up like that, we could re-play her walk videos for her whenever we have to go out and she’d be so busy studying her science projects she wouldn’t even notice that we were gone.

Does this dog look happy about wearing a camera? (not my picture)

Does this dog look happy about wearing a camera? (not my picture)

Or we could set up a lab for her in the big closet in the living room (sorry Mom, you’ll have to move your quilting stuff out of there), and there’d be Petri dishes on all of the lower shelves so she could check in with her smells whenever she wanted. We could have a shelf for types of tree bark, and a shelf for creepy crawlies, and a shelf for clumps of grass peed on by various animals at different times of the day.

Creepy crawly caterpillar for Cricket's collection

Creepy crawly caterpillar for Cricket’s collection

Maybe Butterfly could have a small shelf in the closet where she could press a button and listen to the birdsong of one or another of her friends while acting as Cricket’s lab assistant.

Cricket and her loyal assistant.

Cricket and her loyal assistant.

Butterfly's birdie friend

Butterfly’s birdie friend

I think Cricket might even be willing to learn how to climb the plastic doggy steps if it meant getting closer to her experiments on the higher shelves. She could also use a microscope, and a bright bulb to wear on her forehead for nighttime investigations, and that white lab coat; and if we could find Dog-to-English word recognition software that could translate all of her observations and insights for publication… Clearly, I have been remiss all of these years. If only I had been more proactive, Cricket would already have her PhD.

 

Cricket's first step

Dr. Cricket’s first step

 

The Dancing Raccoon

Out for a stroll.

Out for a stroll.

The other night when Mom and I took the dogs out for their last walk of the night, I heard a terrible squawking sound. I couldn’t quite place it, but it was a mix of a little girl being tortured and birds flapping their wings and leaves rustling. I was concerned, but when I looked up into the woods I couldn’t see anything to explain the sound, and the lights from the complex illuminate the area well enough that a screaming child and her tormentor would have been visible.

The scene of the crime (or, the backyard).

The scene of the crime (or, the backyard).

I thought it might be a cat fight or a strange bird ritual that I didn’t want to be a part of, so I turned the girls back towards home. The rustling sound came closer though, and, of course, I turned around to see what it was, and there was the dancing raccoon. He was skipping out of the woods like little red riding hood, without a care, until he saw the dogs. I don’t think of my dogs as especially frightening, especially when Cricket is keeping her barking to herself, but to this raccoon they must have looked terrifying, because first he froze in mid-hop, then he backed up on his tippy toes like a bad cat burglar, and then he turned and ran back into the woods.

The raccoon looked something like this (not my picture).

The raccoon looked something like this (not my picture).

I really wish I had a video of the dance. He was a bruiser of a raccoon, clearly eating a lot of the cat food left out for the now scrawny feral cats, but my little white fluff balls intimidated the poop out of him.

Who knew raccoons were so cute? (not my picture)

Who knew raccoons were so cute? (not my picture)

To be fair, it’s possible that he’d been spying on us for a while, for days or weeks or months, and had decided that the little white dog with the curly hair and the big mouth was clearly the devil in disguise. Cricket can really scream. I feel bad for the workmen who’ve been traipsing in and out of the complex for the past eight months, because Cricket barks at them every single time she sees them, and tries to break her leash and lunge at them from fifty feet away. Even Butterfly gets a few deep barks out before she calmly sniffs their pant legs.

Crazy barking Cricket!

Crazy barking Cricket!

The big raccoon had probably written out a schedule of safe times to cross the yard to get to the garbage cans in front of the Seven-Eleven, and we ruined his plans by going out at an unexpected hour. He was making such a racket on his way down the hill that I guess he couldn’t hear us until he was just a few feet away.

This was my first raccoon sighting on the premises in a year. We have a lot of wildlife behind our building: we have chipmunks and squirrels and butterflies and snails, we have tiny birds and fly over geese and feral cats and home grown cats, and of course we have the dogs. But the raccoons have been keeping a low profile, and I’m afraid that this particular raccoon will do his best not to let himself be seen again, at least not by me and my scary, scary dogs.

Who could be scared of these two?

Who could be scared of these two?

Puppy On Call


 

            Cricket needs a job. She has a lot of excess energy, and uses it for barking and biting, and I’d like to find more constructive ways for her to keep busy. Some ideas that have come up in the past are:

·        Fitness trainer. She could help anyone build upper body strength and cardio, by pulling like an ox on her leash for three or four miles at a time. She might have a lot of one time customers, though, after an hour with her, I’m not sure we’d get follow up visits.

"Streeeeeeettttch!"

“Streeeeeeettttch!”

·        Assistant dishwasher at a restaurant, pre-cleaning the dishes. Except that any dangerous foods would have to be picked out before she got there, like onions and raisins and chocolate…

Cricket is an expert dishwasher. At least, Butterfly thinks so.

Cricket is an expert dishwasher. At least, Butterfly thinks so.

·        Ball puppy at a tennis court. Though I wonder if anyone would really want the ball back after she’d been carrying it in her mouth.

·        Carnival barker? I don’t think they really mean her sort of barking.

Nothing seemed quite right, and then I started thinking about my brother, the doctor. What if Cricket could do something in his field? I don’t actually believe she could go to medical school (anti-puppy prejudice!), but a hospital would be a fascinating place to work.

Doctor Dog (found online)!

Doctor Dog (found online)!

            Children in the hospital can get very lonely, especially at night, when their visitors go home and the noise quiets down and they are supposed to be asleep. I know dogs have been invited in during the day, but I think they could be even more helpful at night. I can picture the puppies wearing blue scrubs, and beepers at her necks. Puppies could be called by the nurses when a child had a nightmare and couldn’t get back to sleep, or when parents had to leave at bedtime and knew that the child would be lonely.

The human handlers could bring the dogs in and leave a jar of treats by the child’s bedside table, with a bowl of water the dog could reach.

            The job of the human handler would be to be as unobtrusive as possible, but also to know when a child and puppy combination would not be a good match. If the child was angry, at being in the hospital and poked and prodded, and lashed out at the dog, the human handler could remove the dog from harm and prevent the dog from needing to fight back.

            The puppy-on-call room would have to have treadmills, and fake grass to pee on, and a water fountain to drink from, one for the big dogs and one for the little dogs. There could be a play circle filled with tennis balls and chew toys, and mats and beds to sleep on between jobs.

The dogs could do rounds earlier in the day, to meet the children currently in the hospital, and help the doctors with sniffing diagnostics, and then the dogs would be on call at night.

            But now that I think of it, I’m not sure this would be a great job for Cricket. She’s a bit more of a me-me-me dog, rather than an aching-to-be-of-service-to-others dog. Now Butterfly, she’s a whole other story. But her scrubs would have to be a light pink.

Butterfly is very patient.

Butterfly is very patient.

And very Zen.

And very Zen.

            Maybe Cricket could work for the police? Drug sniffing? Recapturing escaped prisoners? She’d be great at catching anyone resembling a leaf or a stick.

"Gotcha!"

Cricket always gets her leaf!

The Olympics, or Synchronized Peeing

The first Olympics I really remember was in 1988, with the Battle of the Brians, and the Battle of the Carmens, and Liz Manley coming out of nowhere with her cowboy hat. I’m a figure skating fan, obviously.

            I used to think about taking Cricket skating, on a lake, if a rink wouldn’t accept her. I think she would prefer hockey skates to figure skates, so she could do fast stops and flick snow on me. Butterfly would look adorable in a figure skating dress and four little white skates.

"Can I have skates?"

“Can I have skates?”

            This is the first Olympics where I don’t wish I could go in person; most of the time it sounds so exciting, to visit another country, to be there in the stands for the opening ceremonies, and to cheer on my favorite athletes. I love the ideal of nations coming together in peace and sportsmanship. I can feel my heart expanding as I watch the march of the athletes into the stadium. I learn a lot about the cultures of other countries, I learn the names of other countries, and enjoy their fashion choices. But I don’t want to go to Russia.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with stories about Refuseniks, Jews who were not allowed to leave Russia or to practice Judaism freely in Russia. But also, Putin scares me. And Siberia scares me. The extreme cap on free speech, and the ease with which they throw people into prison, scare me.

            But I still love watching the Olympics on TV, whether it’s on time or delayed or taped on my DVR. Somehow they get me to watch ski jumping, and snow boarding, and rhythmic gymnastics, and beach volley ball, for hours. I think I even watched a few minutes of curling last time around.

            I wish my girls could participate in an Olympics. They could have all kinds of events specifically for dogs:

·        The great poopy run – judged like a rhythmic gymnastics routine.

Cricket is in the lead!

Cricket is in the lead!

Look at her go!

Look at her go!

·        The long distance pee trip – a dual test, both of how long can you walk, and how many times can you pee in one walk without refueling.

·        Synchronized peeing, a pairs’ event – two dogs trying to match their stance and the length of the pee at the same time. Butterfly and Cricket have been practicing for this event for months.

Consecutive peeing, it's a start.

Consecutive peeing, it’s a start.

·        The escape from your harness event – how fast, and with what level of ingenuity can you get out of your harness? Cricket is the odds on favorite!

·        The barkathon – endurance, volume, artistry. And then, the group barkathon!

Prepping for the barkathon.

Prepping for the barkathon.

Butterfly's looking to Cricket for lessons.

Butterfly’s looking to Cricket for lessons.

            Wouldn’t a group barkathon be the ultimate way to end the closing ceremonies?

Butterfly’s Artwork

My mother has a ring-around-the-room problem, where, inevitably, everything she’s reading or working on ends up on the floor around her bed. When I question this system, I am often told that everything is where it is meant to be. The problem with this system became clear, even to Mom, when Butterfly found a quilting magazine on the floor and destroyed it.

"Voila!"

“Voila!”

Butterfly loves to chew paper. She doesn’t chew soft papers, like tissues or paper towels, the way Cricket does. Butterfly chews harder paper that takes real effort to rip through; she likes coupons, and recipes, magazines, and textbooks, crossword puzzles, and pretty much anything close enough for her paws to reach.

"Ooh, yummy!"

“Ooh, yummy!”

            Paper chewing is satisfying. She can hear the tearing and crumpling sounds, and she can smell that humans have been near the paper, and she can taste the material the paper was made from, and all of it keeps her engaged.

Pop-up book, by Butterfly

Pop-up book, by Butterfly

            She has made attempts to chew the furniture, but her teeth just aren’t strong enough to make a dent.

            Butterfly has been watching Grandma learn how to quilt.

Grandma's Sailboat

Grandma’s Sailboat

The Snowy-Haired Egret a la Grandma

The Snowy-Haired Egret a la Grandma

            Butterfly sees Grandma playing with scraps of fabric, and I believe she has been inspired to create her own works of art. She takes what used to be boring pieces of whole paper, and tears them with her teeth and paws until they are all different shapes and sizes, and then she scatters them across the floor in a pleasing design.

Scatter Art

Scatter Art

            The act of scattering the ripped paper seems just as important as the ripping itself. She doesn’t want to organize the paper into a neat pile; she wants to cover the floor with it.

            I would love to be able to help Butterfly preserve her art work. We could spread a huge piece of mural paper down on the floor and provide all kinds of materials for her to work with: magazines and catalogs and newspapers and crossword puzzles. And, when she finishes a mural, we can put it up on the wall so that every time she passes by, she can sniff it and say, hey, I made that!

            My only concern is that she would pull the murals down and try to redo them, like any other artist, never satisfied with her finished work.

The Afternoon Nap

Most days, I need an afternoon nap. It’s a necessity without which I would be incoherent for the rest of the day. My dogs have decided, though, that what they need most, at exactly the same time, is to play. This is when they need to bark at each other, and climb on me, and compete for my attention. They have spent the morning pleasantly napping while I was getting work done, and now they are restless.

Party time!

Party time!

Nap time generally starts out well. We make our own puppy pile on the bed, and if they are actually tired, we all curl up and go to sleep. But at some point, long before I am ready to get up, they will start the drama.

puppy pile on the bed

puppy pile on the bed

            Cricket will climb on me and demand scratchies. Butterfly will pace back and forth on her side of the bed in search of good chewing material, and then notice that Cricket is getting scratchies, and she will want her share. And then the barking begins, because Cricket has heard a noise, or had a premonition of a noise to come. Did the mail come? Were packages dropped at the door? Does one of the girls need to pee (this is contagious by the way, if one is desperate to pee, the other becomes so agitated that she believes her bladder is bursting as well).

Cricket in my face

Cricket in my face

Butterfly chewing in my ear

Butterfly chewing in my ear

Scratchies!

Scratchies!

"What was that noise?"

“What was that noise?”

            Clearly, they’ve read all of those articles about power naps and how you shouldn’t nap for more than half an hour at a time or you’ll be even groggier. I try to tell them not to read pop psych magazines, but they don’t listen to me.

            Once Cricket jumps off the bed to check for the evil mailman, Butterfly starts to bark, or whine, or stand at the end of the bed and contemplate the certain death that will come from jumping off the bed. I force myself up to put Butterfly on the floor, so she can be with her sister, and that’s when Cricket decides to jump back up on the bed, to be away from her sister. So Butterfly barks from the floor, to try to get me to pick her up again.

            This can go on all afternoon.

"Why am I on the floor?"

“Why am I on the floor?”

            After they are done barking and chasing each other around the apartment, the dogs think we have reached the point in the afternoon where I devote all of my attention to them, and not to sleep, or, God forbid work. Butterfly tries to chew my notebooks, and Cricket butts my book with her head, or knocks it down with her paw.

Studying, with help.

Studying, with help.

            And that’s when I realize, it’s been hours since they were out to pee; two hours at least. And if I take them outside, and wear them out a little bit, maybe I can come back in and get some work done, or take another nap, until the whole drama starts over again.