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Reading Dog Books


When I first got Cricket, as an eight week old puppy, I wanted to do everything right. I found books on how to choose a puppy, train a puppy, and groom a puppy, but it was all too generic. None of it addressed who Cricket actually was: the way she seemed to love the taste of the bitter apple spray I was supposed to put on the furniture to discourage chewing; the way she couldn’t calm down after even the smallest excitement; the way she stuffed herself between book cases for comfort.

"You can't see me, Mommy!"

“You can’t see me, Mommy!”

"Of course I can fit!"

“Of course I can fit!”

"I will never take a bath again. Period."

“I will never take a bath again. Period.”

I needed to hear about actual dogs, and real people who were imperfect like me, but trying.

I found a book by Jon Katz called, “A Good Dog: the story of Orson who changed my life.” He’d adopted a Border Collie, from a breeder who’d had trouble finding the dog a home, and when he picked the dog up from the airport he found out why.

jon katz

What I loved about the book was that he was willing to admit how hard the lessons were to learn. He didn’t portray himself as a white washed ideal. He was a person who made mistakes, and tried hard, and came up against failure again and again. I’m a big fan of people who are willing to admit failure, and not always put on a happy face, because that’s what allows me, as a reader, to relax and not feel so judged for my own failures.

Pam Houston writes fiction that she says is about 82% autobiographical. She wrote a novel called “Sight hound” about an Irish Wolfhound with cancer. I actually can’t remember what else the book was about because her portrayal of the dog was so rich that I tuned out the rest. This was a dog who was loved. And I felt like she was giving me permission to love my dogs that much too.

pam houston and dog

Pam Houston and her Irish Wolfhound’s Butt

I specifically read James Herriot’s collection of dog stories as a way to warm up for writing this blog two years ago. He was a country vet, and his writing style was so friendly and filled with humor and compassion, that he made me feel comfortable. I felt like he was painlessly teaching me bits and pieces about how to take care of animals, and treat them with respect, and he tossed in a few bits of insight about people too. I’ve been reading more of his work recently, and now I know more about a cow’s insides than I ever wanted to know.

James Herriot and a dog with something more interesting to look at.

James Herriot and a dog with something more interesting to look at.

Mark Doty’s memoir “Dog Years,” is a new favorite of mine. I’d read a couple of his poems, under duress, during graduate school, and while I could admire his skill, I was not tempted to read more. But I came across a picture of him with his dogs online and I thought, he can’t be that bad, and I decided to take a look at the memoir.

Mark Doty's dogs

Mark Doty’s dogs

I was afraid he would be pretentious, or his language would be heavy and convoluted, but he is a memoirist who speaks with a clear, articulate, and deeply empathetic voice. He illuminates grief. He has compassion for himself, for his dogs, and for me, by extension.

Anne Lamott says that “having a good dog is the closest some of us are ever going to come to knowing the direct love of a mother, or God.”

Anne Lamott as puppy pillow

Anne Lamott as puppy pillow

I wouldn’t want to tell someone to just read one or another of Anne Lamott’s memoirs. Read all of them. Go on line and read all of her one-off essays. Read her shopping lists if you can get your hands on them, because they’re probably hysterical.

I’m always looking for more dog books, just like I obsessively read all of the dog blogs I can find. Any and all recommendations are welcome.

Cricket’s Vocalizations



            When Cricket sings, she sounds like she’s arguing her case before the court as she gurgles and growls and rolls her R’s and squeaks and skips along the notes. I believe all of these intonations mean something to her. It’s like an aria, with slow pleading sections, and heart wrenching sections at the top of her voice, and trills just to show off.

            When I was a teenager, I thought I might become a singer, so I took voice lessons. But singing actual songs left me frustrated; I couldn’t feel the songs the way I wanted to. I wanted to be expressing the deep clanging in my body and instead I felt like I was a hollow imitation of someone else.

            Vocal exercises, on the other hand, reached me. There were no words, just sounds: mee, may, mah, moh, moo, on different notes, changing the shape of my mouth to round, straight, tensed, loose. Without words, the sounds seemed to be able to express something deep inside of me.

            Dina, my previous dog, used to sing. It was as if she had a button in her brain and if you sang high enough for long enough, she had to sing with you. She’d lift her nose in the air as if the note was over her head and she could only reach it if she could see it. She didn’t growl and roll her R’s like Cricket, she didn’t change pitch or jazz it up; she just aimed at that high note, and howled.

            The circumstances have to be just right for Cricket to start her monologue. Something deeper than food and poop issues, something about being left behind or ignored.

            “Why must you sit at the computer instead of giving me scratchies and a lap to sleep on?” she’ll cry. “Why must you ignore me when I clearly want you to throw this toy for me, so I can catch it and taunt you with it?”

            I listen to Cricket growling and crying and rolling her R’s and I feel like “ain’t that the truth.” It’s not that I always know what she means or what story she’s trying to tell, but whatever she’s feeling, I can feel it vibrating in my bones.

Cricket gets Fixed



            When Cricket was six months old, it was time for her to go to the vet to get spayed. She’d had all of her shots and reached the required weight and the earlier we got it done the less traumatic it would be for her, or so they said.

            My previous dog, Dina, didn’t get spayed until she was eight years old, because my father forbade it. We had to wait until my parents split up and Dina came with me and mom before we could take her to the vet and even find out if the operation would be safe, or helpful at her age. She’d spent years having false pregnancies and hormonal mood swings that left her half crazed and hiding under beds. Finally having the operation meant that her second eight years were much calmer, and happier than her first eight.

            I wanted to do everything right with Cricket and we had no plans to breed her, so the surgery was in her best interest, health and mood wise, but it still seemed wrong to make such a big life decision without her input. It seemed wrong to call such a surgery “being fixed,” as if humans would feel like they were improved by becoming sterile.

            I was conflicted, but we decided to get the operation done anyway.

            The long day started for me the night before the surgery, when we had to search out all of her treats and rawhides and put them away so she couldn’t sneak food after nine o’clock – because having food in her belly would make anesthesia dangerous. No one said she could die, but that’s how it reverberated in my head. I trusted the vet, and the girls who worked in his office, but I was still afraid. They might lose her special squeaky toy, or cut the wrong things out. Or they could return the wrong dog to me and I wouldn’t know the difference.

As soon as we’d dropped her off at the vet the next morning, I went home and started cleaning the apartment; the floors in particular, because Cricket liked to participate too much, chewing on my hands, fighting the broom, destroying the mop, and barking at the vacuum cleaner. This was my one chance to get the work done, unobstructed.

            But with each passing hour, I felt younger and more anxious in the silence of no puppy. I didn’t feel like a warrior mother, ready to break down the walls of the animal hospital if they hurt my baby. I felt inexplicably helpless. Cricket was my fluffy, happy girl, full of life and full of piss and vinegar, and I was afraid that the surgery would change that about her, depress her, make her too much like me.

            We called the vet at One thirty in the afternoon, to see how the surgery went, and they said she was fine and sitting up in her cage, but would need a few hours to recover before we could take her home. I should have felt relieved, but I didn’t. I couldn’t relax, or focus on much of anything. I grated sweet potatoes for a new latke recipe, walked to the library for knitting books, vacuumed again, but I kept thinking: I want puppy. Where is puppy?

            We had to wait a while when we reached the vet’s office, because they’d found her chewing on her stitches and had to clean her up all over again, and add the plastic Elizabethan collar to stop her from reaching the stitches. When they brought her out, she pawed the collar off her head onto the floor. So that was a few more minutes of figuring out how to loop the plastic collar through her own collar to make it stay on and, finally, she was ready to come home.

            I examined her in the backseat of the car while mom drove: her scar was raw, like meat, as if her skin was on inside out. The stitches were black.

            She struggled walking into the house because she couldn’t see past the collar to figure out where the walls were. And she was exhausted. I carried her to her puppy bed, but even then, she couldn’t get comfortable.

            But once the drugs wore off and her stitches started to heal, she was puppy all over again. She didn’t roll her eyes at me and point at her scar and say, Bad Mommy, the way I expected her to. She only hated me a little, and she milked it for a few weeks, asking for extra treats and scratchies and curling up with grandma whenever possible. And of course she healed. I’m just not sure I did.


Saving Little White Dogs

Cricket and I had gone for a short pee trip after dinner a couple of years ago, in Spring I think, during dogwood season. We found Mickey the Maltese digging up the grass on a neighbor’s sidewalk. He was thrilled to meet Cricket. He was a friendly little guy, not suspicious at all when I went to look at the tag on his collar to see where he lived. He was matted and scruffy, but he licked my cheek when I picked him up and carried him in one arm while holding Cricket’s leash with the other.

We walked downhill towards his address and I heard a woman calling out “Mickey! Mickey!”

“I found a little white dog!” I called back, because his tag said, “Mikmous,” and I wasn’t confident I knew what that meant. Cricket led me to Mickey’s Mom.

He’d just run out of the house, leash free, she said, because her sons had left the door open and they didn’t care and they resented him and he was her husband substitute because her husband had died a few years ago. She sounded drunk, actually. I didn’t love handing him back to her, but I had no right to balk, and no one with me to help if I tried to run back up the hill with the two dogs. I had to hand him over and hope for the best. But it stung.

My neighborhood has become more dog-filled in the fourteen years I’ve lived here. When I used to walk Dina, my black lab/shepherd mix, who died five years ago, we would mostly hear dogs barking at us from behind closed doors. Dina was, to be honest, fine with that. But Cricket meets new dogs all the time. There’s Bella and Coco and Toya, there’s Snuggles and Poochie and the twoRockiesand Amber and Taffy, and on and on.

Poochie is a Maltese with a drop of Bichon mixed in to help poof out his waistline. He’s a very slow walker, especially since he hurt his knee. His mom is devoted to him. She gives him allergy baths and forces him outside at regular intervals, to his dismay. He’s not a fan of socializing, or exercise. He’d rather sit on the porch while his mom does the gardening, cleaning, heavy lifting, etc. Whenever Cricket tries to play with him, by jumping and screeching and sniffing his butt, he stands behind his mom and waits for the onslaught to be over.

            But, around the time of the Mickey incident, we were out walking near Poochie’s house and we heard him barking as we passed by. I didn’t think much of it. Cricket rushed ahead, because she thinks barking, from other dogs, is scary, no matter how much she likes the non-barking version of that dog. We crossed the street and started up the hill and only stopped when Cricket needed to sniff an errant pair of purple underwear on the curb. I glanced back, just because I wasn’t as enticed by the underwear, and there was Poochie, alone and unleashed. He stood there, twenty feet away, watching us. I wasn’t sure I was really seeing him. Poochie is the mama’s boy of all mama’s boys and I’d never have imagined him misbehaving, going anywhere without his mom, or, and this was the biggest shock, being so desperate to see Cricket that he ran out of the safety of his house. He stood still as we moved towards him, slowly, and he even let Cricket sniff at him for a moment. But a moment was more than enough and he turned and started to run into the middle of the street. I called to him, but he just stood there, until I aimed Cricket at him and managed to coax him to the side of the street with the threat of her nose about to sniff his butt. When he saw his Mommy running out to find him he raced into his harness and asked for uppies, while Cricket jumped up at his mommy’s legs.

            Now we troll the neighborhood looking for dogs to save. It is such a high. For those few moments, I felt like an actual good person, a brave person with her values in the right place, even an effective person – none of which I get to feel in my life otherwise.




Bath Time



Cricket is too small to take a bath in the whole bathtub, and we don’t have a plug to keep the water from draining, so we use a plastic storage box that’s just her size. We fill it up with water and dog shampoo and set it in the bathtub. I dress for the occasion, rolling up my pants, removing socks and shoes, and covering up the rest of my clothes as much as possible with the green kitchen apron that I never wear in the kitchen.

Cricket hates bath time. I can get her into the little tub, but she shivers and tries to climb out. After the soap and scrub phase, her grandma lifts her out of the tub and wraps her in a towel while I empty, rinse, and refill the plastic box with clean water. There have been times when she’s needed three dunkings, because the water gets so saturated with dirt that she needs an extra soaping before she can be rinsed.

She resents this process as much as you’d expect her to.

As soon as she’s been rinsed clean and cuddled in a towel by her grandma, she wriggles her way to freedom and then starts to growl and run and slide across the increasingly wet bathroom floor.

Then, when she’s allowed out of the bathroom, she runs to Grandma’s bed to roll around on the quilt and grumble and then she jumps to the floor and races back and forth across the apartment like a crazed animal because she is so mad at us! How dare you get me wet! How dare you wash off my wonderful perfume! How dare you make me shiver and trap me in water and dry me with a towel! How dare you!

One benefit of the running, shaking, craziness extravaganza, is that it does a lot to dry her hair. She goes from the shrunken down version of herself back to full fluff.

I don’t love giving her baths. She finds them so distressing; and I have to crouch the whole time and scrub poop and try to keep her form jumping to freedom. I know it’s in her best interests to be clean, and I can be firm and mommy-like when I need to be. But I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not hurting her, as she alternately bares her teeth at me, and whimpers. I repeat a mantra to myself, I am not the bad guy, I am not the bad guy, but I don’t think Cricket agrees with me.





I used to do yoga on the living room floor every day. I’d take out my blue exercise mat, unroll it, and get to work. But then Cricket arrived and made it impossible. First she stood on my chest. Then she chewed on my hair when I was in Downward Dog. Then she attacked my fingers. When her frustration had ratcheted up to its highest point – about a minute or two later – she started to chew through my mat. Chunks of blue foam rubber scattered to every corner of the room.

            My first response was to give up on yoga, because I was already tired from fending off Cricket’s attacks and taking her out to pee every hour. Then I missed my yoga mat and gated her in the kitchen, but she could cry and bark, and slam herself against the plastic tension gate for forty-five minutes straight, or, worse, she would slide her nose under the gate and stare at me with tears in her eyes.

            I felt so guilty that I switched to exercises I could do with her in the room and with only minimal injury to me. Anything I could do standing up and wearing shoes was a good option, though she still tried to jump up and bite my hand weights during bicep curls.

            When Cricket gets frustrated with me she makes this adenoidal “fnuh” sound. Not quite a sneeze, but the noise comes from her nose more than her throat and is accompanied by a quick nod of the head, as in “Damn you!”

I can’t do strenuous exercise anymore. There’s been a gradual worsening of what’s been diagnosed as Fibromyalgia. But I still unroll my yoga mat on the living room floor and go through a series of exercises I cobbled together from physical therapy and exercise tapes I’ve watched over the years.

Cricket likes to pick out on of her toys from the toy box – the now deflated birthday cake, the purple fish, the nylon bone she’s had since puppyhood – and she brings it to me to throw for her. When she gets tired of that, she buries the toy under my shoulder, or in my hair, and then scratches at my hand to let me know that SHE wants to be scratched. Sometimes, when I’m stretched flat on the floor, she’ll do laps around me, a slow walk with stops for sniffing along the way. But sometimes, all she wants is to lean up against me and take a nap. It still surprises me that I am of comfort to her, but I am.