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Cricket and the Doggy Steps

            Cricket has been having trouble jumping up on the beds recently, but instead of resting on the floor or calmly asking for help (Butterfly used to snuffle at my hand to ask for uppies), Cricket shrieks endlessly. It’s not just barking, it’s at the top of her vocal range, where glass really should be shattering all around her.

            She takes CBD oil to manage the regular pains of aging, and DES for her previous incontinence issues, which have both helped her tremendously, but they haven’t stopped the aging process altogether. She’s thin, and she has to wear sweaters because she’s lost a lot of hair, and her vision is blurry and her hearing is, let’s say, imaginative. But she is still the complicated, demanding diva she always has been. So when she started to struggle more to get herself up onto Grandma’s bed, after her middle of the night visit to the wee wee pad, she would stand next to Grandma’s bed at three or four or five in the morning and bark her head off, demanding to be lifted back up onto the bed.

            Mom’s answer was to cover her head with a blanket and try to ignore the noise, because that’s how she’s managed Cricket’s long-time habit of trying to bark her awake in the mornings, but I could not ignore the noise. After I’d been woken up two or three nights in a row to lift Cricket back up onto “her” bed, I insisted that we give the old doggy steps a try.

            We bought the doggy steps for Butterfly, way back when, because her legs were too short for jumping onto and off of the beds. She was eight years old and fresh from her last pregnancy at a puppy mill when we first brought her home, and she had heart problems and diabetes and lumps and bumps and broken teeth, so I wanted her to have the best life possible in the years she had left, and I thought the doggy steps would help. I also assumed she’d just know how to use them, magically, but it took weeks of training, and each step required a new chicken treat. Cricket’s contribution to training was that she would try to steal the chicken treats before Butterfly could reach them, though she used every possible machination to get to the treats without ever putting a paw on those doggy steps. By the end of training, Butterfly was only okay with walking down the steps, and not up, but at least it gave her a little more independence. Cricket, on the other hand, continued to treat the steps like hot lava to be avoided at all costs.

            So it made sense that Mom was skeptical about Cricket being willing to use the steps now, at almost sixteen years old. And my first attempt was a predictable disaster. I put the doggy steps at the end of my bed, while both dogs were napping, and when they woke up to the smell of whatever Grandma was having for lunch, they acted as if a scary dragon had arrived to stop them from reaching the floor and they maneuvered so far around the steps that they slammed into the dresser when they jumped off the bed.

But I wasn’t willing to give up. I thought, maybe the problem was that Cricket’s desperate need was to be on her grandma’s bed, not mine. So I put the doggy steps at the end of Mom’s bed, and the next time Cricket wanted to go up, instead of lifting her straight onto the bed, I lifted her onto each step, one at a time, making sure all of her feet made contact, until she reached the top and walked off onto the bed. And then I did it again, and again. And then Mom, still skeptical, put a chicken treat up at the top of the steps, and showed it to Cricket, and Cricket walked up the steps on her own. And ever since then, Cricket walks up those steps whenever she wants to, even when Grandma isn’t on the bed to welcome her. There was almost no learning curve at all.

            And I realized, once again, that with Cricket motivation is everything. And I think I might be more like Cricket than I realized. I don’t try to be stubborn or be a lot of trouble, but when my anxiety is high and there are no rewards big enough to overcome it, I can’t learn anything. I can just shake, or cry, or shout for help. I don’t mean to be like this. In fact, I’ve done everything I know to fix it. But nothing really works, until it works. Once the anxiety recedes enough, and the motivation is strong enough, suddenly things that seemed impossible become possible. But I never know when that turning point will be reached. So, like Cricket, I stand right outside of the Promised Land, wailing, begging for entrance, sometimes not even knowing who I’m crying to, waiting for the steps forward to finally become clear.

            I hope that when my doggy steps, or the equivalent, finally appear, I will be able to learn how to use them as quickly as Cricket has. She is, as always, my best teacher.

“What about me?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Ellie’s Progress

Ellie’s Progress


Ellie will be six years old this month and she is basically unrecognizable from when she first arrived as a shy, quiet, skinny little girl a year and a half ago. First of all, she loves to eat. She would eat second breakfast (aka Cricket’s breakfast) every morning if we didn’t keep a close eye on her. Cricket is often blasé about breakfast, but Miss Ellie is teetering on the edge of a weight problem, so we have to be careful. Second, she makes eye contact all the time and has learned to make puppy dog eyes at me to ask for more treats and scratchies whenever she wants them. She barks to go outside, and races across the hall to bark at her friend Oliver on her way out the door. And then she zooms! She does figure eights and spirals and circles out on the lawn out of sheer joy!


“That’s me!”

She even lets me wash her butt in the sink, even though it scares her, so she doesn’t have to walk around with poop on her butt, the way Cricket chooses to do. And Ellie loves her people. At her most recent grooming appointment the groomer said, a little resentfully, that Ellie has really attached to me now (she was rescued by the groomer in the first place and then came to us).

Ellie with Gerry

“Who are you strange people?”

Ellie still pees too much indoors, though, and despite two wee wee pads (next to the front door and in my room), she still ends up peeing in the “wrong” places too often. But she seems to pee a lot more often than Cricket does, so I choose to blame her particular anatomy for this problem instead of blaming her.

Ellie is all love and enthusiasm, even when she’s sleeping, and she’s not self-conscious about her poochy belly (there used to be puppies in there, so she has an excuse!).


I finally started to work on training with Ellie a few weeks ago, because she’s been getting extra barky lately and I wondered if teaching her some basic commands might help her as much as it would help me. Up until now I was reluctant to bother her with obedience lessons, because I was thinking of her as another Butterfly (a puppy mill mama rescued at eight years old), someone in need of freedom more than anything else. But Ellie isn’t Butterfly. She’s younger and healthier and less traumatized by her still-difficult early life as a breeding dog with a local breeder.


“Ellie isn’t me. She’s her own special person.”

And it turns out that Cricket loves to act as role model for our training sessions, gleefully taking treats for every good “sit” and “stay” and “twirl” and “down.” Except that we had to go through an enormous amount of treats just to get a handful of good sits out of Ellie. And the process was exhausting. Ellie seemed to learn “sit,” and then unlearn it, ten times over. Cricket was a very quick learner, way back when (not that it’s done us much good), but while Miss Ellie really tries, training doesn’t seem to be her strength. She actually had solid name recall when we first brought her home (which Cricket has never managed), but that seems to have been the extent of her previous training. I have to use very small treats to train her, because she needs so many repetitions, and I ran out of the special tiny treats very quickly. I’ve been slow to re-order them, because those training sessions exhausted me so much more than they exhausted the dogs.


“Cricket would have liked a few more treats.”

But even without formal training, Ellie has made tons of progress. When she first came home she was kind of stiff and inflexible, and I assumed it was just her body type. Cricket can curl up in a tiny ball and almost disappear, and I assumed that was just not possible for Ellie. But over time Ellie’s back has become looser, and longer, and she can curl up nose to toes just like Cricket, when she wants to, or stretch out across the couch to connect her people. Her back is like an accordion, contracting and stretching with each breath. She’s also stronger, and faster, than before, and she runs and jumps and begs for kisses while standing straight up on her hind legs.


“Hi Mommy!”

I can’t train the sisterly relationship, though, so that’s still up to the girls. Ellie will lean on Cricket, and Cricket will lean on Ellie, but only if Cricket can pretend it’s not happening. They sniff each other for information whenever they’ve been apart for a few minutes, and they work together to demand outings, and to warn of incipient attacks by the mailman, but seconds later Cricket will act as if Ellie is a complete stranger who has wandered into our home by accident. Cricket gets especially riled up when she thinks her food and scratchies are being stolen by the interloper. And she can be quite a bully, intimidating Ellie away from the snacks.


“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

When I try to intervene, Ellie lowers her eyes, as if to say, No, Mommy, Cricket knows best. I’ve tried to explain to Ellie that, clearly, Cricket does not know best, but Ellie doesn’t believe me and I haven’t figured out a way to train her out of her subservience, or to train Cricket into learning how to share. My hope is that, over time, Cricket will learn to find Ellie’s devotion endearing, and start to bend a little bit in return. There will be plenty of treats in it for her when that happens, and she knows it, but sometimes even treats aren’t enough motivation.


“Wait, when are treats not enough? Cricket, is this one of those unanswerable koans?”


“Do you see what you’ve done?”


If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?



Training Cricket, Again


We are, once again, trying to intervene with Cricket’s bad behavior, but focusing small this time: just don’t bark on the way out the door. If she barks, I sit down and count to ten. The hardest part is remembering to follow through with the plan each time we take the dogs out. Cricket is very hard to train, and so am I. It’s usually the last trip at night, when other people are trying to go to sleep, that her barking is at its most inappropriate. She seems to think that I need to be reminded, even as I am getting her leash and putting on my shoes, that she really, really, really wants to go outside. And it takes her a while to notice that each time she barks, I sit down and start counting to ten, starting over at the beginning each time she interrupts the count. But I’m persisting with the plan.


“I am Cricket. Hear me bark!”

It seems like a very small thing to try and improve about her behavior, especially because it has no impact on all of the other barking she does throughout the day: rushing to the front door of the apartment to tell the non-existent bogey man to go away; barking at boxes on our neighbors’ porches; and shadows on the grass fifty feet ahead; and, of course, barking at random humans who dare to walk in her yard. But it’s a place to start.


Hmm. This method could work too.

Mom is trying to go along with the plan, but she’s set in her ways too. She tries to talk Cricket into being quiet, which just makes Cricket bark more, because she thinks they’re having a conversation. And Mom doesn’t like having to sit down each time Cricket barks, especially at night when she’s already exhausted. So I sit, and Mom stands, and Cricket thinks that means Mom can be convinced, so she jumps at her grandma’s legs and paws at her, in vain. Eventually, Cricket figures it out and quiets down, and we go outside.

I wish I could convince Cricket to stop barking at babies, and other random residents of the co-op, when they try to pass within five hundred feet of her; I wish I could convince her to keep her teeth to herself, especially when I try to wipe the goop from her eyes; I wish I could convince her that the bath tub is not a torture device. But my many, many, previous attempts at teaching her those lessons have been utter failures.


Cricket has some anger issues.

I rarely try to train Butterfly in anything anymore. Early on, we had to teach her how to poop outdoors, and climb the stairs, and take pills. After that, I thought I’d try to work on basics with her, like sit and stay, but she looked at me like I was a crazy person. She has her own learning style and it doesn’t include responding to voice commands. I’d love it if I could teach her to be less stubborn when she’s walking on her leash, or maybe teach her to sleep past seven o’clock in the morning, but after numerous attempts she is still indifferent to my efforts. And she’s twelve years old. She never bites anyone, and only barks to tell me that she’s hungry or needs to go outside, so, I’ve decided to let it go.


Yes, Butterfly knows how cute she is.

But Cricket is a menace. The noise pollution alone is at toxic levels, and I can’t, in good conscience, stop trying to protect my neighbors from the full panoply of Cricket’s behaviors.


“Who me?”

One magical moment happened, though, a few nights into the new regime. After three barking eruptions, and three full counts of ten, with no sign of a let up, Butterfly walked behind Cricket and gave her a look that seemed to say, please don’t bark anymore, because I really need to pee, and that actually seemed to work. Cricket quieted down, and we all went outside in relative peace. But most of the time, Butterfly is too busy having one last kibble for the road to expend too much energy in teaching her sister how to behave.



So I guess it’s up to me.

Training A Butterfly

            Butterfly peed on the living room rug. She started by peeing on the hardwood floor in front of her food bowl, but then it was the rug, in front of me. She may have thought we kindly went out and bought her an expensive, floor wide, wee wee pad. She had been, mostly, potty trained, but this reminded me that I needed to get back to work.

Butterfly and her rug.

Butterfly and her rug.

I haven’t been very focused on training Butterfly since we moved to the new apartment in May. My big goals, since she came home from the shelter last November, were: to train her to pee and poop outside, and walk on a leash, and climb stairs, and respond to her name. And she learned everything, at her own unique pace.

            Cricket had her own list of skills to teach Butterfly, like the appropriate way to greet humans when they return home (jumping in the air and hyperventilating), and how to really walk on a leash (pulling your human where you want to go), and how to bark to get what you want.

Butterfly can now beg for food while standing on her back legs.

Butterfly can now beg for food while standing on her back legs.

            Butterfly has also learned, on her own, that she can say no. If we take her outside, and she pees right away, she will sit down on the sidewalk and stiffen her neck, because she has finished her work and does not want to walk any further. This is the first time I’ve seen, up close,  the biblical image of a ”stiff necked people,” all in one tiny dog. She is, if possible, more stubborn than Cricket. She doesn’t bite or bark or whine, she just refuses to move. And when her mind is made up, it stays that way.

            My renewed training efforts have been focused on teaching her the verbal commands Cricket learned in her puppy classes, like “sit” and “down.” Cricket is an impatient role model, though, and expects twice the treats for her efforts to show her sister the ropes, so we are running through chicken treats at a very fast clip.

The girls are ready for their chicken treats, um, training session.

The girls are ready for their chicken treats, um, training session.

            I’d never really planned to do this kind of training with Butterfly. I figured, at eight years old, after a life in a puppy mill, she shouldn’t have to work so hard. And really, she is as close to perfect as she could be already.

Butterfly, already her best self.

Butterfly, already her best self.

            A few months ago, I noticed white butterflies massed in front of our apartment building, specifically in front of our building, and not the ones on either side of us in the complex. They fluttered all over the place, in packs, kissing leaves and being beautiful and doing as they pleased. Logically, I’m sure, they are here because the plants in front of our building are especially attractive to white butterflies, but I would like to believe that they recognized that my little white dog was their kin, and they came to be with family, and train her how to be a butterfly.

The butterfly family, checking in.

The butterfly family, checking in.

Dancing Puppies

Always start with a stretch

Always stretch first


Cricket first came home as an eight week old puppy, in September of 2007. She was adorable and tiny and running in every direction and we took her to puppy class that October, determined to start her off right. She needed socialization, and manners. And we needed some idea of how to make her stop biting us.

Every Monday night, after class, we drove home discouraged, and turned on the TV for some relief. I don’t remember if I’d watched Dancing with the Stars before that season, but it was on after class and it was undemanding, so it became a staple.

I picked up my exhausted, angry puppy, and we learned how to dance. She liked the calm, slow, up and down twirls of the Waltz. I liked the sharp, staccato turns of the Tango, paw in hand. But her best dance was a free form mix of the Latin dances. She loved to shake her tushy. I held her in the air and twisted her to the right and the left, shoulder shimmy right and left. We sang the “I like big butts” song and the “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” song, though Cricket does not have much of a milkshake.

Cricket demonstrates a dance lift

Cricket demonstrates a dance lift

Each week, we danced with the contestants and tried new rhythms and new lifts, and the dancing bonded us in a way the class, with its forced sits and holding-puppy-on-her-back to get her calm, never could.

I’ve tried to teach Cricket some dance moves she can do on her own. There’s the slow turn on two feet, and the two-steps-forward-two-steps-back, and the sit-down-stand-up-jump combination. All held together with chicken treats. But, honestly, she’d rather be getting scratchies.

Cricket mid-spin

Cricket mid-spin

When Butterfly first came home she wasn’t up to dancing. She’d been living in a crate for her eight years at the puppy mill and needed to start slow. The first step was to get her moving, just walking around the block, using her legs, climbing curbs and steps. She learned about jumping for treats from Cricket, and she taught herself how to twirl, just for fun.

Butterfly learns by watching Cricket

Butterfly learns by watching Cricket

Now that she has all of her dance steps, she prefers to dance on her own instead of with me. She has a very specific, well choreographed poopy dance. First she starts to run, back and forth, back and forth, to warm up. Then she starts to hop and skip in circles, in one direction and then the other. Then there are the spirals. She ends with a few small, hopping circles, lifting her hind end up and bouncing it off the ground.

Then, finally, she stops and poops.

Butterfly mid-dance

Butterfly mid-dance

It’s possible that Butterfly’s puppy mill was near a ballet school. I can’t imagine how she had the room to develop this dance routine living in a crate all day, day after day. She must have been dreaming this dance her whole life.





Harness Houdini

All of Cricket’s harnesses



When Cricket was little I heard a lot about the collar versus harness debate. That, especially with small dogs, the vertebrae at the neck are so fragile that the collar can do real damage if she pulls too hard at the leash. A harness is safer and better. Just like a crate is better than leaving the dog to roam free and sleep on your bed. And homemade food is better than store bought. And you need pet gates and wee wee pads and hourly trips outside, and on and on.

I was determined to be the perfect pet owner this time around. We bought everything on the list from the breeder, including special food and treats and toys and a crate. For my whole life, our dogs went without all of that. They ate regular dog food, and chewed on socks and couches and never stepped foot in a crate or an obedience class.

I was especially proud of Cricket’s car harness. It was black nylon on the outside and plush on the inside and solidly made. I snapped her into the harness and tightened the straps and then attached it to the seatbelt in the back seat of the car just like the instructions told me to do. My preference would have been just to hold her in my arms, or buy one of those soft carriers you see in the catalogs. Dog catalogs are like crack for new dog owners, addictive and very bad for you.

She was sitting calmly in the back seat when I turned the key in the ignition. This was just a test trip, because I’m a worrier, and Mom was there with us in case of trouble. And, of course, within thirty seconds of my turning the key in the ignition, Cricket had escaped her harness and jumped into the front seat.

The car harness, for just a moment

The pressure to put her in a harness didn’t go away, though. Whenever we took her out walking, we were told that her collar was too skinny to take the pressure of the leash pulling at her neck. So we went back to the store and bought a strappy red harness for her daily walks. By the time we reached the sidewalk on the first outing with the new harness, she had removed the whole apparatus, this thing that took me five minutes and ten red scratches on my arms to put on her. One minute she was at the end of the leash and the next she was in the street, bewildered.

Mom found a wider collar, meant for a larger dog, and then altered it by adding more holes in the collar so it could be tightened down to Cricket’s size. With the wider collar, we read, the pressure would be more evenly distributed along her neck as she, inevitably, pulled like an ox against her leash.

We took a break from harnesses for a year after that, but when Cricket went to her second training class, the teacher recommended harnesses again, and told us which one to buy. She carefully tightened the straps in all the right places before class and told us Cricket would be fine. Within two minutes, Cricket had worked her body into such knots that the harness was wrapped around her ankle and holding her foot in the air.

The teacher had never seen such a thing, and after another few failed attempts, she told us to stick with the collar and make do.

Finally, five years along, Cricket has a harness that stays on. Mostly. It’s pink and silver and looks like a little tank top. And this time, we tailored it so it fits her skinny shoulders and stays right under her armpits. She can stay in it for a whole walk, but even with this one, she can pull part of the mechanism over her head, so that the leash is dangling from her throat. I don’t know how she does this.

The pink and silver harness

The fact is, with enough motivation, like one of her human cousins trying to drag her across the yard, Cricket can even get out of her collar, let alone any of her many harnesses. She’s an escape artist. But the only place she escapes to, is behind my legs, where she feels safe. Go figure.

The pink harness out for a walk


Cricket’s English Comprehension



Sometimes I think Cricket understands full sentences. Like the times when she starts barking at her Grandma, trying to boss her around.

First, of course, I say “No,” in a firm, loud voice. But Cricket ignores the command and keeps trying to get Grandma’s attention. So then I tell her, in my conversational tone, that she’s being rude to her grandma and it is not time to go out or have a snack and she can rest for now. And Cricket listens to me, and stops barking, and crawls under Grandma’s chair to go to sleep.

Cricket knows the important words, like: walk, poopie, grooming, bathtub, chicken treats, cheese, out, go, sit, no, and Cricket. When we are out walking and I say the word “water,” she looks to the bag that holds her Tupperware cup full of water. If she hears the word “breakfast,” she will lick her lips. One time, when we were outside, I said the word “foot,” and Cricket lifted her back foot and stared at it.

            She has selective hearing, like any other child. When she’s exhausted, she’s less sensitive to words like “toy” or even “walk.” The “G” words almost always get through to her, though. If I say “grooming,” she runs to the bathroom and climbs into the bathtub, which is where the grooming happens. She loves grooming because it’s her most reliable source for chicken treats. She would prefer to stand in the bathtub and be fed treats without having to get a comb through her hair, but the treats make anything bearable.

When she is over excited, she can’t really hear me over the noise in her own head, or the screeching she’s doing out loud. When I take the leash out, she jumps two feet in the air, over and over, like a Jack Russell, and if I try to tell her to sit, so I can attach the leash, she seems to be screeching “What? What?!” as if I’m speaking French.

I remember seeing a dog on TV who could identify each of her thirty toys by name. Her dad, a psych professor, would say “fish” and she would dig through a toy box and come back with the fish. Cricket knows that “toys” are in her toy box or scattered on the floor, but individual names for toys don’t seem to be strongly correlated for her. If I say “Fishy” and it’s the only toy she sees, she’ll bring it, but if her birthday cake or purple dinosaur is near by she might pick that up instead.

She is very smart, but she has no interest in making the most of her potential. She’s not a working dog or a people pleaser. I wish I could accept this about her, but some part of me still dreams of index cards and word drills and Cricket hearing the word “fish” and digging through her toy box to bring me a fish. Because that would at least make me feel smart.