Category Archives: Walking the Dog

This Snow Won’t Go

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Last Wednesday’s snow remains very much with us. Every yard is still an expanse of white.  Our old maples appear far shorter, due to the snow banked high on their trunks.  Snow plows created towering fortresses at every intersection. Roads are bordered by messy, jagged ridges that grow more discolored every day, yet never seem to diminish in size.  Parking lots are dotted with miniature mountains.

Days of bright sunshine combined with frigid temperatures created an icy top layer that sealed in the snow below.  The squirrels, whose zest for life appears boundless, chase each other playfully across it.  Kiko is less enthusiastic.  He investigates the snow piles tentatively, placing each paw carefully to see if the surface will hold.  He is clearly irked when  a leg or two plunges through the crust and leaves him in an awkward position, his dignity compromised.  The shaded sections of our driveway are still thickly coated with ice, making a short trip to the car a dangerous business.  We weren’t able to fit in our mid-winter visit to my husband’s family in Rochester this year, but the landscape of upstate New York appears to surround us.

The predicted warming spell has arrived, yet it has had little effect on our snow cover.   Two days ago, I saw a good omen.  I watched as Kiko picked his way delicately over the mounds of deep snow on our patio to reach his favorite sunny snoozing spot, newly uncovered. That night, however, brought another two inches of fresh powder.

Today we may finally see a change.  The temperature is expected to climb into the high 50s. As we finished our morning walk, a light rain began, and I was cheered at the prospect of some of the snow washing away.  I had barely completed the thought when I heard a long, loud, slow rumble of thunder.  Kiko heard it, too.  Oh no!   That meanie’s back!  (See Evading the Terrible Thunder Monster, April 2013.)  He began to pace nervously, circling the house several times before allowing me to wrap him tightly  in his thundershirt. The daily inconvenience of the snow had me dreaming of spring.  But I’d forgotten that with it comes, for my dog, the nightmare of thunderstorms.  Maybe it would be best that the winter cold continue for a while, snow or no snow.

 

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 Kiko reclines atop the snow, eyeing the street for approaching friends. 

Real Snow. Enough Now.

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Today we have a snow day with real snow, and lots of it.  The schools here in northern Virginia used up all their snow days back in January.  Yet there’s been very little actual snow.  Certainly we’ve had our fill of frigid temperatures and diverse forms of icy accumulation.  But as for the pretty fluffy white stuff, not so much.

Until this morning, when we woke up to over a foot of the real thing.  It’s more snow than we’ve seen here in four years, when we were treated to back-to-back blizzards, pre- and post-Christmas, that paralyzed the area.  Last night’s snow was enough to shut down all runways at Reagan National and Dulles Airports, enough for the government to call a State of Emergency, enough even for my husband’s office to close.  This gave him the chance, at long last, to fire up his essentially unused snow blower, the one he bought in 2010, just after those last big storms.

The street was a smooth, untouched, snow-covered ribbon this morning when Kiko and I headed out for our walk.  We were grateful to be able to follow the parallel impressions left by a car sometime during the night.  In the tire tracks, the snow didn’t flood up and over my boots, or envelop Kiko’s entire body.  Where the snow was completely untouched, my little dog was forced to bound through it with a sort of swimming motion.  He seems to thrill at that first plunge, but his exhilaration quickly dissipates.  Following his exertions, he slept for hours on the playroom sofa.  All day long I’ve been tempted to join him.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could be so lucky?

My daughter, of course, was delighted by the snow, and by yet another snow day.  As for Kiko and me, we’re ready for spring.

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My daughter, at home in her element.

Deck the Dog

No theological implications here.  Just a dog too sleepy to mind being wrapped in synthetic greenery.  My daughter has always found it disappointing that Kiko refuses to cooperate and wear the typical doggie costume.  No devil horns for him at Halloween, no reindeer headband for the Christmas photo.  But this year, as we were hanging the stair garland, he lacked the energy to care, or perhaps to protest, when she decided to adorn him, as well. 

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Sleep in heavenly peace. 

A Masked Visitor

Until today, we had never spotted a raccoon in our yard, or even in our immediate neighborhood.  Deer and squirrels are routine. Foxes are frequent. Once, when my daughter was very young, she alerted me to the presence of two animal control officers walking across our front yard:  There are two people with big guns, Mama!  Turns out they were in search of the infamous rabid skunk that had been roaming the area.  But the raccoons, they had stayed away. 

I was eating breakfast when I heard Kiko bark from the yard. Of course, he rarely makes a sound. And this was a different kind of bark: a single woof, with an excited edge to it. I ran out to the porch to see my little dog face to face in the grass with a raccoon. Of course, I feared he would get bitten or scratched. I was afraid the raccoon might be rabid. Nearly every week, there’s at least one account in the Public Safety notes of the local newspaper of a dog quarantined after tussling with a sick raccoon.

Kiko was keeping some distance between him and the interloper, while backing it toward the fence. I clapped my hands loudly and yelled repeatedly, “Go Away!,” Get outta here!” The raccoon got the message, hastened its retreat, and squeezed through the bars of the fence. Once on the other side, it clambered up a Leyland Cypress in our neighbor’s yard. From a perch in the branches it peered down at us, composed, charming, and terribly cute. Kiko sat below at rapt attention, expectant, itching for another chance to show this foreign visitor what’s what.

We kept watch for a while. I wanted to make sure the raccoon wasn’t behaving erratically or showing signs of illness. As far as I could tell, it appeared to be a perfectly healthy specimen, handsome, well-fed and fuzzy. With an enviable sense of self-possession, it seemed content to observe us calmly and wait it out in the tree. After a while, and with much effort, I dragged Kiko away and onto the porch, where we watched as the raccoon carefully, unhurriedly, climbed down from the tree and disappeared into the bushes beside our neighbor’s deck.

Is this the first of many more such masked visitors to come? Or simply the appearance of a rebellious loner who got off track? While it’s hard to imagine a more cuddly-looking creature, for Kiko’s sake, I hope it spreads the word that inside our fence no warm welcome awaits. I hope it tells friends and family of its close brush with a fierce, red, fox-like monster.

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Underfoot, and Easily Overlooked, the Circle of Life

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Yesterday, my daughter called my attention to an elaborate lichen formation on one of the decaying tree stumps in our front yard.  Although I walk past it nearly every day with Kiko, I hadn’t noticed it.  Amazing, the strange beauty we can so easily overlook.  Our lawn repeatedly offers such spectacles.  Yet I still forget.  Oblivious, I walk right by.

I’ve written about the attachment our family feels toward our old trees.  (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012, and  Barred Owl Update, June 2013.) The two immense maples that survive from the original six, planted the year our house was built, are ninety-three years old.  Broad stumps serve as place markers, memorials for the trees that had to be removed.  The  life, so strikingly peculiar, that emerges from these dead stumps is further justification for our not having them ground down.

Lichen is one of earth’s oldest life forms. Very slowly, but with exceptional persistence, it emerges in unlikely, inhospitable spots, nearly impervious to extreme conditions and temperatures.  In the crowded busyness of our twenty-first century world, it keeps a low profile and may go unnoticed.  Lichen is not a single organism, but a complex partnership between fungi and algae.  Lichen may grow from bare rock or wood.  As it grows, it breaks down the substance from which it emerges, helping to create soil.

The lichen on our tree stump is a cascade of flower-like growths.  Depending on your point of view, it resembles part of an exuberantly ruffled blouse, rippling water flowing over rocks, the feathered plumage of a giant bird,  the petals of cabbage roses deconstructed and rearranged, or even the scales of a fantastic crocodilian creature.

I’m so glad we let nature take its course.  Had we not said “no,” over and over, to unbeatable stump grinding prices (offered eagerly by every tree company that drives past the house), we would have no stage for this riot of oddly lovely new life.  How satisfying, how hope-inspiring, it is that from the last vestiges of this maple tree springs an ancient vitality.  Decay and growth, hand in hand, rather like the lichen partnership itself.  The circle of life, circling on and on, underfoot.  While the tree stump remains, we’ll be observers at the quietly fabulous end-time celebration it’s hosting.

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Party on, lichen.

Sun’s Rays Fall on Northern Virginia!

When the sun reappeared yesterday, I felt like a kid in school welcoming back a close friend who’d been out sick for a week.  Judging from the number of walkers and runners (with and without dogs) in our neighborhood, I wasn’t alone.  Today, after a foggy start, the sun is shining on us again, painting lawns and trees with golden highlights.  In this slow-moving fall season, a few touches of color are beginning to be revealed.

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The brightest dash of fall color in our yard is offered by the leaves of a sassafras tree, shown here against the trunk of one of our big silver maples.

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The yellow leaves and prolific seed pods of this old redbud tree testify to fall’s approach.
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A sweet-smelling river of pine straw flows past our house every October.
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This time of year, Kiko is outside as often as possible,
camoflaged in pine straw the color of his fur, perhaps hoping to trick a squirrel.
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The Thundershirt: What the Well-Dressed, Anxiety-Prone Dog is Wearing this Season

It’s the tropical rainy season here in northern Virginia, as it is for much of the east coast.  Pounding rain and crashing thunderstorms are daily interspersed with periods of intense sunhine, resulting in a muggy, jungle-like atmosphere.  Kiko, of course is distressed.  (See Evading the Terrible Thunder Monster, April 2013.)  Our once cocky, fearless little dog has become the the canine Woody Allen.  Should a cloud cover the sun, however briefly, we’ll find Kiko hiding in a centrally located bathroom, cowering in a corner of the kitchen, or repeating a nervous circuit of the house.  The Xanax prescribed by our vet just wasn’t doing the trick.

So, we tried the Thundershirt.  And, I’m much relieved to say, it works.   For tough situations, when combined with an increased dose of Xanax, it really works.  Yesterday, July 4th, was just such a situation, easily one of the most miserable days of the year for Kiko.  The celebratory fireworks of indepence are, to our dog, simply another, perhaps even more evil, manisfestation of thunder.  When he heard neighborhood children ominously blowing horns and snapping a few poppers, his apprehension took root.  By the time the first local firecracker had sounded, well before dark, he was clearly anticipating the world’s end.

I put him in his Thundershirt by late afternoon.  It averted the shaking and quaking he usually experiences during his periods of anxiety.  At  8:00, Kiko dutifully swallowed the Xanax (.5 mg) in a bit of cheese.  My husband and daughter, both devoted connoisseurs of fireworks, collected their extensive stash of explosives and headed out to join the neighborhood conflagration.

I retreated to the den of safety I had prepared for me and my dog:  our family room, with the blinds drawn and draperies pulled (to keep out any flashes of light).  Kiko, bundled snuggly in his Thundershirt, eagerly cuddled up with me on the sofa.  I tucked several pillows around us for good measure, poured a glass of wine (a bit of helpful self-medication) turned up the ceiling fan, and tuned into the first episode of Boardwalk Empire, which I had been wanting to sample.

As the sounds of pounding, popping, whizzing, cracking and booming increased  outside, Kiko breathed evenly and appeared to be very nearly content. H and D witnessed and participated in a varied and prodigious display of fireworks, I drank a toast to Prohibition and Steve Buscemi, and enjoyed the sweet closeness of the loving lap dog I often wish Kiko really were.

Happy 5th of July to everyone, especially to those who share their lives with anxious dogs!

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Kiko, in his Thundershirt, yesterday afternoon. It’s obvious, by the position of his ears, that he’s already alarmed.
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The Thundershirt wraps tightly, to mimic a close hug.


 

 

Kiko the Service Dog

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Kiko will see you now.

As I’ve mentioned before, there may be nothing Kiko likes more than a ride in the car, followed by a walk.  In cool weather he accompanies me on daily outings.  Before I do my grocery shopping, get my allergy shot, or whatever, we walk.  Afterwards, he waits contentedly in the car until I return, either keeping a look-out from the driver’s seat, or snoozing in the back.  One day last week, we were cutting through the yard of the Sunrise, an assisted living facility, on our way to a nearby park.  As we rounded a curve on the path, we met a couple pushing a sleepy looking elderly woman  in a wheelchair.  Upon spotting Kiko, she woke up.  Oh, look!, she exclaimed.  What a beautiful dog!  I love dogs!  Her companions were visibly cheered, as well; suddenly an unpromising walk had taken a decidedly more satisfying  turn.

As I see it, Kiko regally assumes that everyone he encounters is there for the express purpose of an audience with him.  He is a beneficent monarch, one who graciously and generously bestows the gift of his royal presence.  Because he lacks any pressing matters of state, should no loyal subjects appear, he has the humility to lie down and await their certain arrival.  That day at the Sunrise, no wait was required; homage was instant.  After an initial greeting, Kiko sat calmly at the base of the wheelchair while the smiling Sunrise resident, her face twenty years younger now, petted and adored him.

You must bring him by again!, she urged.  We used to have a dog named Shadow who lived here, and I miss him so much.  Her son told me that Shadow was a big dog, a lab-pit bull mix.  He had the run of the Sunrise until he began jumping on the residents, prompting an employee to adopt him.  There was no longer a house dog, and Shadow had left an empty space.

That got me thinking.  Could Kiko help fill that space?   During high school and college, I had enjoyed visiting with nursing home residents on a weekly basis, but I hadn’t been able to bring my dog.  On a cool sunny day the next week, when Kiko and I were going to the grocery, I decided to drop by the Sunrise with him.  His welcome was warm and immediate, from staff and residents alike.  An appreciative crowd gathered, with my little dog at its center.

I asked a staff member if dogs needed special training to visit; I had always assumed they did. My friend Celeste completed several obedience classes with her dog Beau to certify him as a nursing home therapy dog.  Kiko passed his puppy class, but just barely, due to his headstrong on-leash behavior.  We did not continue his formal education.  Surprisingly, no special training for visiting dogs was required at this facility. To return on a regular basis, a dog needed only proof of vaccinations.

Several residents and staff mentioned that Miss Anne sure would like to see the dog.  Did we have time for a room visit?

Of course!  A caregiver escorted us upstairs, via the elevator, a first for Kiko, one that he took in easy-going stride.

When we arrived at the room, its occupant yelled loudly and gruffly for us to enter.  The big voice belonged to a fragile little lady.  Miss Anne was lying perfectly, alarmingly inert on her bed, and she appeared to be in no mood for guests.  Until she saw Kiko, that is.  Suddenly she was up and attempting to pop out of bed  with such alacrity that I was afraid she would topple to the floor.  The caregiver jumped in, luckily, to help her safely maneuver to the side of the bed.  Kiko sat at her feet.  He even gazed up at her with an expression that could be described as loving.  Such a show of emotion is unusual for him.

After a while, Miss Anne asked me, Didn’t I see you out back before?  It wasn’t until then that I realized this was the same woman Kiko and I had met earlier outside with her son and daughter-in-law.  I’m sure she recognized Kiko, not me.   How fitting it was that, by chance, we found our way back to her, just as she had hoped we would.

Our family sometimes jokes that Kiko would be the world’s worst guide dog.  There is no amount of obedience training, no army of diligent, expert dog whisperers, that could ready him for the job that many labs, golden retrievers and German shepherds seem born to do.  It’s not in him, and it’s not in his breed.  But, like all dogs given the opportunity, all those we welcome into our lives with love, Kiko has a gift for brightening his little corner of the world.  And now, with the relative maturity of his nearly six years, he has the unflappable, mellow temperament to bring special cheer to the Sunrise.  How lucky it is that we met Miss Anne and her family that day! Kiko will be back next week to check in with his new friends.

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Escape to the Country, in Suburbia

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One of the most appealing features of our little corner of Northern Virginia is the beauty of its landscape.  It’s pleasantly hilly, interestingly rolling, never aggressively steep.  Woodlands are interspersed with open fields, vestigial traces of the many farms that dotted the area in the last century.  We consider ourselves fortunate to live in one of the last few surviving farmhouses.  On their 200 acres, the original owners planted wheat and raised chickens.  They had a small apple orchard and a sizable flower garden.

On the other side of the winding county road, where big fields sweep down to small lakes, some families still keep horses.  There are charming little stables, grassy paddocks and old vine-covered wooden fences.  When Kiko and I walk there, it’s hard to believe we’re in suburbia, a place I never expected to live.  We cross the road, follow a short path through the woods, and we’re suddenly somewhere more remote.  It’s almost like a quick trip through time and space to the countryside of my childhood at my grandparents’ farm in Kentucky.  Early on a spring morning, it’s an especially satisfying escape.

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