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The Flea Dance

When Cricket got fleas as a puppy, seven years ago, I didn’t know what they were. I saw what looked like fennel seeds stuck to the base of her hair, when she was wet from her bath and her hair was clumped together. I asked Mom what the seeds were and she had to take samples to the vet’s office, on a tissue, to find out.

"You're drowning me!"

“You’re drowning me!”

"I can do it myself."

“I can do it myself.”

We started Cricket on her anti-flea meds right away. Once the medication kicked in, I still had to comb through her hair to remove the dead fleas, and then trim her hair with clippers in order to find every last bug. And then we put her on monthly doses of Frontline, which she hates. The Frontline liquid has to be squeezed onto her back and she acts like I’m burning her with acid.

"You can't find me."

“You can’t find me.”

I don’t think we gave our dogs flea and tick treatments or heartworm pills regularly when I was growing up. I vaguely remember those white collars for flea and tick prevention but I can’t imagine they were worn year round. People spent (a lot) less money on dogs when I was growing up.

I don’t even remember hearing about ticks until we found one, engorged, on my last dog, Dina’s, neck and I thought it was a cancerous tumor. The vet rolled his eyes at me for that one too.

Dina. She survived that tick.

Dina. She survived that tick.

The thing is, when I was in first grade, I got lice three times. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know why it was only me, and not my brother, or my best friend. Each time, I was sent home with special shampoo and combs, and everything in my room was washed. By the third time, my hair was so knotted from scratching that the hairdresser had to cut it short.

My classmates had two answers to this situation. One was to call me Simon, the name of a boy in my class with a similar haircut to mine. The second was a dance the popular girls made up, where in they pretended to be bugs, and danced around me with curled fingers and raised shoulders and bent knees.

Little Rachel

Little Rachel

When Cricket got fleas, I felt like I was back in first grade. Cricket had no doggy friends laughing at her and calling her names, and the fleas were dead and gone as soon as possible, but I could still feel the phantom popular girls dancing around me and laughing.

Cricket doesn’t understand when people are criticizing her, or making fun of her. She doesn’t hear it or care about it, but I do.

I can’t imagine having a dog now and not medicating her against fleas and ticks and heartworm. It’s part of the ritual now. With each new dog I become more protective and more of a mommy. They need meds, and treats, and baths, and grooming, and special collars and tags, toys, and beds, and training, and endless scratchies.

By the time I get my next dog I’ll probably have a full sized princess bed in the corner of my room with a tray table for midnight water breaks and maybe an escalator out to the yard.

And I’ll try not to project too much of my human crap onto him or her, but I can’t make any promises.

DSM Puppy

I took a class in Abnormal Psychology this past semester, and we learned about the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM is similar to a field guide to birds, without the map to tell you where to find each colorful creature.


There was a lot of excitement, from the teacher, about the new DSM 5 arriving in May, and I began to think, what would a DSM for dogs include?

My incomplete list of disorders:

Hyperbarkia – a disorder in the quantity of the barking and/or the level of hysteria. An occasional woof-woof to mark the passing of a neighbor, or a more persistent bark to note a stranger at the door, can both be within the normal range. Whereas an unending barking spree, lasting twenty minutes or more, or rising to operatic levels, can be a sign that the need-to-bark meter has jammed.

Bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you-disorder is self explanatory.

Cricket, a case in point

Cricket, a case in point

Foreign object eating disorder – eating rocks and sticks and plastic toys, because those trips to the vet are just so much fun!

Vacuum phobia – when dogs believe that the vacuum cleaner is a giant roaring monster, ready to devour every toy, treat, and dog in its way.

Mailman paranoia is the belief that the mail delivery person is coming to massacre the family, and the only thing standing in his or her way is a tiny barking dog. (I worry that this puts undue stress on Cricket’s heart.)

"Mailman! Mailman! Mailman! Mailman!"

“Mailman! Mailman! Mailman! Mailman!”

Scratching Addiction is when a dog can get hours of scratchies at a time and never feel like it’s enough. Having an endless void inside of you, that no amount of scratchies can fill, may lead to other addictions, like chicken. Not to be confused with a genuine allergic skin condition.

Butterfly, a borderline case of scratching addiction

Butterfly, a borderline case of scratching addiction

Bone hiding disorder – this can be a normal reaction to a sibling who steals bones, or it can be a miscalculation on the dog’s part, imagining that the humans would steal that dirty, spit covered nylabone, if only they could find it.

PGSD or Post-Grooming Stress Disorder results in flashbacks and tremors at the sign of clippers and the sound of bath water. This can be incredibly disabling and creates the false impression that dogs prefer to be dirty. They do not. They just believe that the process of becoming clean will kill them.

Cricket hates being wet

Cricket hates being wet

Overly Selfless Dog Disorder is common in Golden Retrievers and other therapy dogs. This disorder can result when a dog is so focused on pleasing her humans, or other dog siblings, that she doesn’t stand up for herself. These dogs can be so good natured and non-confrontational that others take advantage of them or ignore their needs. (Butterfly started out this way, refusing to fight with Cricket over food or leashes or toys. If Cricket wanted something, Butterfly would stand back and leave it to her sister. But she’s getting better at elbowing her way to the food and speaking up when she wants to go outside or eat Grandma’s chicken wings.)

Butterfly: "Who me?"

Butterfly: “Who me?”

Jumping Bean Disorder – Some dogs have this need to bounce that can’t be repressed. Jack Russells are known for springing so high into the air that they greet human visitors at eye level. (Butterfly has not managed this feat, but she is trying.)

a serious case (not my picture)

a serious case (not my picture)

Fear of Thunderstorms is very common. I imagine thunder sounds like a huge, unnaturally ferocious, dog standing outside of the house and barking to get in. (Butterfly gets very anxious. Usually she sleeps on her side of the bed, with maybe a paw stretched out to touch me. But during thunderstorms, she climbs on my chest and shakes. Cricket has no fear of the sound of thunder, but she doesn’t like to be out in the rain and get plinked on the head by rain drops.)

Flibbertigibbet Disorder is an unrelentingly positive attitude towards going outside for walks that causes the body to hop and twirl and race around in aimless circles, preventing the attachment of the leash.

Small Dog Syndrome is when dogs under fifteen pounds believe they can intimidate full sized humans, by growling. This is also assumed to work on Fed Ex drivers.

This is my incomplete list of disorders. Clearly further revisions and additions will be needed. This shouldn’t take more than twenty years.

Samson and Why I Hate Halloween


When I was six years old we had a dog named Samson. We adopted him as an eight week old puppy from the shelter. We were used to more aggressive or standoffish dogs, but Samson was a black Labrador mix and had the Lab personality through and through. My brother and I would race off the bus from school to see Samson and play with him. He was the happiest dog we’d ever had and we loved him.

It could just be that he was still a baby, and hadn’t settled into dogdom yet, or maybe he just didn’t have time to cause trouble before he died.

We only had him for two months, until he was hit by a car, on Halloween. I’ve built up a long list of reasons why I hate Halloween: monster movies scare me; I had to touch peeled grape “eyeballs” in the dark at a Halloween party; I don’t like knocking on strangers’ doors; I prefer to choose my own candy; and I have PTSD, so every time someone knocks on our door or rings the doorbell to trick or treat, I feel like hiding under the bed.

I sound like the Grinch who stole Halloween, I know.

But the bottom line is that Samson was hit by a car on Halloween, and the two events have always been paired in my mind.

Mom’s not sure how he got out of the house, but she blames herself. She thinks she must have left the door open when she took the garbage out. When she realized he wasn’t in the house, she ran outside to look for him and a group of kids told her he’d been hit by a car and they’d carried him to the side of the road. His body was still warm, but starting to get stiff by the time Mom brought him up to the porch. I don’t know why he ran out into the street. Maybe he was following the trick or treaters. I don’t know. I was already in my pajamas and probably asleep.

My father insisted that my brother and I not be told that night, so we found out the next morning, after they’d already buried him in the backyard.

Something about the Samson story still feels unresolved, like a haunting. And I don’t know what it is. The traumatic event happened off screen. I didn’t see him getting hit by the car, and I didn’t see him die. I worry that Samson could have been saved if only I’d known that he needed me. I don’t have many narrative memories of him, just a feeling. Not so much a body memory as a soul memory. I feel, in some indistinct place in my heart, my face, my hands, that he was a joyful place in my life. And he was fleeting.