Arriving Where We Started

If I had a blog, today I would write about coming home a second time.

Almost exactly a year ago we made a remarkable decision: With Dad’s retirement approaching, he, Mom and I decided it would be exciting to leave our native Missouri and make our home in a new place, a place quite different from that which we know so well.

Our first thought was Florida. We had a beach house near Sarasota when I was a child and memories of sun-drenched mornings on the beach, collecting baskets of seashells, and watching dolphins play in the evening surf made us think perhaps that was the place we should go. Mom and Dad made a trip down to look at homes and see if any of Old Florida still existed and, for a few months, it seemed a real possibility. But when the calculators came out and the risk of hurricanes was factored in and the bumper-to-bumper traffic was assessed, we had to admit that our version of Casey Key was gone. We were chasing ghosts of the past trying to make our dream a reality and we accepted that we had to move on.

00-solstice-sunset_0040-webOur next thought was Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’d all visited Santa Fe and loved the classy, artsy feel of this quaint city and the fierce landscapes surrounding us would be the perfect place to experience wilderness in a way we hadn’t before. We looked at hundreds of homes online, talked to a realtor, and even made a trip out to get one more up-close-and-personal Santa Fe experience, but, in the end, we realized our dreams of a desert oasis would be drowned in a sea of wall-to-wall tourists the year round and so we set this plan aside as well. It was then that we had the most remarkable thought of all: Why not stay here, on the farm we call The Greenwood?

the-house-in-summer-webTwo decades ago, Mom and Dad bought this land and built the farm of their dreams. They designed the house, planned the barns and pastures and planted crops that would benefit livestock and wild creatures as well. Together, we raised sheep, cows, horses, pigs, and chickens to feed ourselves and eventually, our growing base of customers. We had a twenty-cow dairy and sold our grass-fed meats to the best chefs in St. Louis. We hiked every acre of this place and came know the spirit of every hillside, creek, and valley. We built a life here. Why should we be in such a hurry to leave?

Eight years ago we stopped farming on a large scale and slowly sold our livestock to others until the barns stood empty – waiting for the next chapter to begin. We thought the story would be written by others, but, it turns out, we have more to say, more stories to create in our little valley by the river. When all was weighed in the balance, the answer was clear: Our next adventure begins here, on The Greenwood.

20160921_0066Twelve laying hens now inhabit the chicken house, already providing us with healthy eggs, rich in flavor. In the next few weeks, we hope to bring home six sheep to give us lambs in the spring, and over the course of the winter, we will acquire half-a-dozen young cows who will supply us with beef calves and breeding stock. There might even be a border collie in our future. Its hard to say just how deep this rabbit hole goes.

When I think about it, staying here makes perfect sense. It has the ideal circularity of story to give a happy ending. It also mirrors one of my favorite quotes, a passage written by T.S. Eliot in the final passage of The Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploring                                                                                                               And the end of our exploring                                                                                                                         Will be to arrive where we started                                                                                                                 And know the place for the first time.

So we begin – again.

Nothin’ Could Be Finer

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds: The Carolina Wren.

web 10062014_247I love wrens. They are bold, brassy, and outspoken; flitting from pillar to post with their tail upright as if in protest. I’m not sure what Carolina’s have to protest, but believe me, rebellion is in their blood.

Carolina Wren’s average about 5″ in length and weigh about 3/4 of an ounce. They are the second largest wren in the United States after the cactus wren of the desert southwest. Carolina Wrens can live to be 6 years of age and often keep one mate for their entire breeding lifespan. When a pair of wrens bond, they not only stay together through the nesting season, they remain a pair and interact throughout the year.

Although both sexes of Carolina Wren can sing, it is primarily the males we hear making their strident calls from fence row and thicket. One captive male was recorded singing 3,000 times in one day! This is news to me, as I assumed female wrens were the ones making a racket during breeding and nesting season: Sort of an, “I am woman, hear me roar,” attitude. Nevertheless, female wrens do defend their nests with great vigor and anyone approaching her brood should do so with caution.

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Baby Carolina

During the breeding season, male Carolina Wrens several nests, although only one will be used for brooding. Not only do the “dummy” nests confuse predators, but scientists believe female wrens choose the most appealing nest to use for raising young.

The hallmark of the Carolina Wren is the bold, white eye stripe that gives them a somewhat cross demeanor. If wrens come back as humans, I think many would return as stereotypical boarding school teachers. Their stern visage speaks of rapped knuckles and detention after school. There would be no talking, note-passing, or other fol de rol in the classroom of Mr. or Mrs. Carolina Wren !

web 10062014_250Carolina wrens spend the majority of their time on or near the ground searching for food, or in tangles of vegetation and vines. They also probe bark crevices on lower tree levels, or pick up leaf-litter in order to search for prey. Their diet consists of invertebrates, such as beetles, true bugs, grasshoppers, katydids, spiders, ants, bees, and wasps. Small lizards and tree frogs also make up the carnivorous portion of their diet. Vegetable matter makes up a small percentage of their diets, such as fruit pulp and various seeds. In the northern portion of their range, they frequent bird feeders.

For me, the bottom line is: I like wrens because they are small yet mighty. I admire their courage and the bold way they approach life. More often than not, life seems overwhelming to me and yet here are these wee birds who are ready to take on the world. When a Carolina is sitting on my porch, belting out his vibrant song, it gives me courage to be my authentic self, to sing my own wonderful song.

For the Love of Little Chickens

If I had a blog, today I would write about my love of the farmstead chicken.

06092005_223627I met my first chicken in an ambulance. I was twelve and newly diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes. I had the flu and, back then, in the late 1970’s, if I couldn’t eat, I had to go to the hospital for IV’s. My doctor was two hours away (the joys of rural living), so away I went with Mom by my side.

Just as we were going out the door, the phone rang. It was Dad, calling from nearby Rolla to say my baby chickens had just been delivered to his dental clinic and were cheeping away in his private office. I was bereft. I’d waited for two months for the arrival of my baby Buff Orpingtons and I couldn’t believe I was going to miss this sacred moment because of the flu. The EMT wheeled me out to the ambulance and Mom followed a few minutes later. I was weeping quietly when I noticed we weren’t on the Interstate. We were in Rolla, pulling up to the back door of Dad’s office. A few seconds later, Dad appeared, bearing a box full of twenty-five cheeping fluff-balls. The EMT’s all gathered ’round as Dad handed me one of the chicks. I was crying again, but this time it was for joy. I thanked Mom for this gift, but she told me it was the driver’s idea. He’d said once my IV was in, we had time for a stop. I wanted to kiss him, but instead I handed him a chick. He was crying too.

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When I came home from the hospital a few days later, Mom let me move their brooder-box in my bedroom. I spent hours at a time sitting next to my little flock, caressing the golden carpet of chick-dom that would now be the center of my life. Our yellow Lab, Michael, often sat with me and together, we got to know the baby Buffs as individuals.

 

Julie and ChicksThe first chick I named was called, “Friend.” It was a simple name but it said it all. From the start, this little hen sought me out and enjoyed sitting on my shoulder, cuddled up against my neck. I often wondered if she was the chick I held on the day of their arrival, but regardless, she remained my companion for the rest of her long life.

As time progressed, other chicks made names for themselves. There was Moshe, who only had one eye. I named her for Moshe Dyan, the Foreign Minister of Israel who was also partially blind. There was Crocus, who grew into the most maternal hen I ever had. She would accept any chick from any hen and one year, when several hens failed to be good mothers, Crocus ended up with twenty-one chicks. She was determined to get them all under her wings at night and as the chicks grew, they lifted Crocus off the ground when they settled in for bedtime.

Old Farm House0012Over the course of my life there have been many special roosters and hens, of all sizes and of all breeds and they have made my life complete. Chickens are gentle creatures who radiate happiness. Listening to a mother hen calling her chicks to a juicy worm, watching my happy girls scratch in fresh straw, or sitting in the twilight, listening to the lilting night-song of chickens going to roost has lifted my spirits on even the hardest days.

10162012 164625 webI have been without chickens for almost a year now and it has been a long haul. My hen house sits quietly on its grassy lawn, waiting to see whether we will stay or go. For a time, we thought we wanted a change, a life after farming with leisure time and freedom from the routine of daily chores, but, as it turns out, farming is hard to get out of your blood and we’ve decided to stay.

Tonight I will go down and tell my chicken house to make ready, for the girls are coming home, and the song of the hen will resound from her walls once again.

 

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Blue Jay Weather

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds, the blue jay.

web 10022009_042742It was chilly this morning. The Canadian cold front that came through over the weekend brought in brisk, autumnal air on the wings of the north wind. It was fifty-two degrees this morning and walking was, at last, a treat rather than hard labor. The drying leaves shimmered in the breeze and carried one of my favorite sounds: The call of blue jays as they went about their morning work.

Web 09132007_195921 (1)I have always loved blue jays. Their wings, with windows of blue and white outlined in deepest black remind me of stained glass windows and their antics at the bird feeders only hint at the deep intelligence that is part of the family corvidae. Most of all, I have warm feelings for blue jays because, here in the Ozarks, they are the voice of autumn. During the nesting season, they are largely silent, but once the kids are out on their own, the woodlands ring with their raucous calls and brings forth memories of crisp days, frosty nights, and the smell of woodsmoke on mellow, restful afternoons.

I am fond of all the species of birds that make up the corvid family. I love jays, crows, and ravens with equal passion for they are the true intellectuals of the avian world. Blue jays use their large vocabulary not only to communicate with one another, but also to deceive other birds. They are great mimics and often make the cry of a red-shouldered hawk to clear the birdfeeder of competition for the choicest morsels. In captivity, blue jays can also imitate human voices and the calls of domestic cats. Blue jays also have quiet, almost subliminal calls which they use among themselves in proximity. One of the most distinctive calls of this type sounds like the swinging of a rusty gate or a rusty pump handle going up and down. The blue jay (and other corvids) are distinct from other songbirds for using their call as a song.

Blue Jays are tremendously loyal to their family members. They mate for life and defend their nestlings with the ferocity of a mother lion. One of my clearest childhood memories is watching Mom trying to get a baby blue jay back in its nest. Mom bravely climbed a rickety ladder, propped against a tree, wearing a hard hat and gloves to protect her from the attacking parents. The mission was a success, but after that, blue jay nestlings were left well enough alone.

Web 03012015_093520But now nesting season is over and the blue jays and I move into the autumn season together. As I forge ever deeper into the middle years of my life, I appreciate the blue jays’ determination as they put away their stores for winter. They are caching acorns in hollow trees and I am caching memories. The summer season of my life was rich and I don’t want to mislay a single golden afternoon or moonlit night. I want to remember it all, journal it all, treasure it all before winter takes its inevitable toll. Blue Jay inspires me to keep storing my thoughts, come what may. Some will fall on fallow ground, some will feed my soul, and perhaps a few will grow into mighty oaks – a magnum opus, a legacy for all to share.

 

 

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my totems: The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn.

06032014_182856 webIn the early 1990’s my spiritual path took an unexpected turn. While I had always loved nature and respected it as a seat of mystical power, it wasn’t until I was in college that I began to explore Native American spirituality as a way of worship that could be my own.

My first introduction into this reality was a book by Ed “Eagle Man” McGaa, simply titled, Mother Earth Spirituality. It related many traditional Lakota tales with which I was familiar, but it also encouraged me to find my own place in the Sacred Hoop, based on the animal totems that appeared in my dreams and in my waking life.

One of the first totems I identified was the dragonfly – particularly those that appeared in late summer. These, the Lakota called The Blue Dragonflies of Autumn. Of them, Eagle Man relates:

Dragonfly (Tusweca) is the Indian’s answer to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Plato taught us that the life we understand today is but a mere shadow on the wall compared to the complete reality that lies beyond.

Dragonflies have this great power because they are walkers-between-worlds. Born in the water, dragonfly nymphs split their skin and emerge from ponds and rivers on gossamer wings, on which they soar into a new reality. The Lakota believed this change was analogous to a human rising up and entering the spirit world: Seeking knowledge in a reality that was utterly inconceivable before the metamorphosis took place.

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn reminds us autumn is near and the time for contemplation is at hand. Although the dragonfly moves through life quickly, he heralds the time of slowing down, when we transform from creatures of doing to creatures of being.

I am ready to draw inward and sit in the mellow sun, pondering the Great Mystery that is life. Like the dragonfly, I am ready to emerge from the world of my youth and embrace the coming of the autumn years of my life. Dragonfly encourages me that although my new reality may seem foreign at first, my life will open up and reveal the deepest magic yet. I eagerly await what lies ahead.

The Greatest Gift

If I had a blog, today I would write about the greatest gift a human can receive.

Miranda

Miranda

Not long ago, I thought I was out of the Crazy Cat Lady business for good. Last November, when my puppy, Gus, fractured his shoulder, I gave my two house cats to a friend, leaving me with one barn cat, Miranda. Miranda is thirteen years old and while she’s friendly, she prefers to send her love from a distance rather than be cuddled or petted.

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Francie

 

Then, sometime in May, Francie showed up. She was thin and her long hair was matted and tangled. She wasn’t afraid of me, but not tame enough to groom. I fed her every day in hopes I could eventually catch her and get her to the vet. I was sure she was a female and the last thing I wanted was a barn full of feral kittens.

 

 

As our rapport grew, I began to miss the quiet presence of my house cats. I didn’t regret giving them up, but the Crazy Cat Lady in me had a longing she couldn’t quite shake. That’s when I had the dream:

About two weeks ago, I had a dream where I was in the presence of lions, tigers, leopards, and cheetahs. I was on the Serengeti in a Land Rover watching a female lion when my transport changed to something more like a dune buggy without doors. The lion kept following me and tried to get in my vehicle. I had to floor the gas to get to my compound, where I would be safe. It was a close call, but I zoomed through the gates just in the nick of time.

As I always do, I looked up the symbols in my dream to see what meaning they might have. I looked up lions et al and gleaned the following:

To see a cat in your dreams is to highlight your independent spirit, creativity and power. Take note of what the cat is doing and perhaps find ways to emulate what it is trying to show you about yourself. Fearing the cat is in essence the fear of your own power. The cat beckons us to realize that when we turn within to our own hearts, minds and souls, and trust in ourselves we will always be shown the truth of matters.

The dream resonated where I was having struggles expressing my artistic talent. I wasn’t afraid of the gift, just of using it. If I listened to my heart, though, I would forge on and trust that I needed to stay with my art: My writing, painting, and photography, taking firm hold of the belief that one day, my work would be a career. I also took heart in the feeling that one day, I would have cats in my life again. I just didn’t know it meant it would happen within twenty-four hours.

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Greystoke

The morning after my dream, I went out to feed Miranda and Francie and I saw another feline slipping into the Cat Room. I hoped it wasn’t a male, come to meet Francie’s feminine needs, but when I looked in, I saw the interloper was a big, black-and-white kitten and his three siblings: A calico, a silver tabby, and a grey kitten with a white nose. Francie had pulled a fast one.

 

The best I can figure, Francie had been at the barn for longer than I knew and she’d had her kittens right under my nose. Being a good mother, she kept her babies hidden until they were up and going on their own and now, eight weeks later, she was ready to introduce them to the world.

Naturally, all my negative thoughts about feral kittens vanished at the sight of Francie’s brood. They were utterly terrified of me, of course, but I didn’t want them gone, I wanted to make them my friends and the socializing began.

Every morning I go to the barn, set out five dishes of loud-smelling canned cat food, sit on the floor of the Cat Room and wait. Some mornings all four kittens come out from behind the vet cabinet and sometimes they creep in one at a time. I can tell their fear is giving away to curiosity, most of which I attribute to their mom.

Francie has been a doll. After she eats, she comes over to me to be caressed and brushed. Yesterday, the grey kitten (Greystoke) followed Francie and came within a foot of me. This morning, after Francie came over for loving, she headed out and left the kittens alone with me. At first they looked askance at me, but then they relaxed into eating, grooming, and playing. I am hoping they will let me take their photo in the near future, but for now, they prefer to remain incognito.

For me, there is nothing more rewarding than earning the trust of an animal. We don’t speak the same language, in most cases I am a giant in their world, and I come from a predator species. In short, there is no reason these kittens should trust me. If I can project the empathy and compassion I have for them without human devices like speech, it tells me I am the kind of person I want to be. If my being radiates love, then I am a success, worthy of the greatest gift in the world.

 

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Bees

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of the honey bees.

080116_2132This summer we have new visitors at our hummingbird feeders: Honey bees. While we could buy hummy feeders with bee-guards to keep the little guys at bay, their urgent need has prompted us to make room for them at the table.

In past years, we’ve had problem with wasps taking over the hummingbird feeders. Wasps are aggressive and disinclined to share. They will drive hummys away if possible and if their threats go unheeded, they will even attack the little birds to drive them away. Not so with bees.

080116_2105On any given day this summer, you will find the holes around the feeders ringed with bees; six or seven per feeding area, but instead of jealously guarding their bounty, they are more than happy to share with the hummingbirds, letting them sip at will in the center of the ring of bees.

The bees are gentle with us too. When the feeder is empty, Mom and I have only to gently brush the bees away. They go without quarrel and return without malice, sometimes landing softly on our hands as we hand the feeder on its silver hook.

We don’t know where the bees came from. Perhaps they are a swarm that left an overcrowded farmstead hive along our road or maybe they have come from a long distance, finding solace in our little valley. From wherever they arrived, The Greenwood is now home and we are honored to host their banquet.

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In a world where hatred seems to be the dominant force, I am glad to see cooperation, kindness, and gentleness right out my back door.

                          Poet Kahil Gibran wrote:”For bees, the flower is the fountain of life;                For flowers, the bee is the messenger of love.”

This year they are our messengers of love as well. I love you little bees.

I Got A Dog

Gus' first day home2If I had a blog, today I would write about my extended hiatus from the blogging world. The cause for my absence can be summed up in a single phrase: I got a dog.

In March 2015, I bought a baby yellow Labrador I named Gus and since that time, every moment of every day has been about me and Gus. It seems as though I should have known getting a puppy would upend my world. My family has always had dogs: Labs, border collies, Great Pyrenees, a beagle, but what I didn’t realize is the difference between a family pet and a dog of my own.

Having a puppy was, for me, akin to having a baby. I am single and work from home, so Gus and I have had the opportunity to be together 24/7 since he came into my life and his joie de vie has turned my world inside out.

Gus on his first day home.

Gus on his first day home.

I knew about the basic things like: Puppies don’t sleep at night, they make messes, they need constant supervision, and they need daily walks and training. No problem. But none of the books, nor my previous experience, prepared me for a Lab who lived full-throttle from dawn to dusk. Michael, our first Lab, was laid back from the start. He played with my brother and me, laid on the couch to watch TV, and just kind of melded in with family life. Not Gus. He was like a hyena on speed. He leaped, he bounded, he ran at the speed of sound through every event of my day. He ate reams of paper, shoes, shirts, socks, and dryer sheets. I spent most of my time removing some potential danger from his mouth: Rocks, wire, even a piece of broken glass. He seemed to have a knack for self-destruction and I was all that was standing between him and an early departure from this life.

Of course the biggest problem was: I was madly in love with this dog. By bedtime the first day I knew I’d die if anything were to happen to this gregarious pup. I was hooked and there was no turning back.

Consequently, along with the loss of any free-time, my creative muse took flight  upon Gus’ arrival and I began to think she would never return. There was a moment, late in the fall, when I thought we were making headway, then came November.

051115_0692In November 2015, Gus’ insane energy finally got the better of him and he broke his shoulder running into the corner of the greenhouse at the speed of light. Surgery looked imminent, but a wonderful orthopedic surgeon at the University of Missouri Vet Clinic said it could be avoided if I could commit Gus to 4 weeks of complete crate rest. The decision was clear, but no less challenging. Keeping the Tasmanian Devil still 23 hours a day for a month seemed impossible, but it had to be done.

Keeping Gus in his crate for 4 weeks was hard. Keeping Gus in his crate for 8 weeks just about broke my spirit. There was one setback after another and I thought if I saw him go downhill another time, I would need to be put in a crate – permanently.

To make a very long story short, the vet was right and Gus did heal, but by the time I’d gone through that trauma, I didn’t have a creative cell left in my body. It is only now, nineteen months after Gus’ arrival, that I find myself creating again. Today, as I write, Gus is finally sacked out beside me, giving me time to put my thoughts out into the ether once again.

So, at least for now, I’m back. Thoughts are flowing and hope is rising. As summer turns to fall, I look forward to sharing my blog with you once again.

 

The Evidence of Things Not Seen

If I had a blog, today I would write about my continued experiences with faith.

Although I know it is generally considered bad form to experiment with the nature of faith, the scientist within me can’t help but look for what Hebrews 11:1 describes as “the evidence of things not seen.” A bit oxymoronic perhaps, but my “research” has yielded some surprising results!

By the Sea

By the Sea

My journey into faith has become essential, as my life is about to undergo major change. Dad will be retired from dentistry in two years and we are ready to move on from the rigors of farm life. To that end, we have decided to begin working to sell the farm so we can move to a little house on quiet beach in south Florida.

Naturally, the practical part of moving from the farm is complicated. We have horses, chickens, a duck, and cats that need new homes. We have to prepare the property for showing, which means repairs and refurbishment at the barn, in the pastures, and in the house. I lay awake nights with a zillion scenarios zooming through my head: What if the house sells before we find a new one? What if we can’t find suitable homes for the animals? What if? What if? What if?

In an effort to retain our sanity, Mom and I made a pact to put a moratorium on negative thinking and really let The Divine guide us through the tangled mass of the days ahead. So far, it appears that faith in a higher power is not just a myth.

Best Friends Rain (L) and Skeeter (R)

Best Friends
Rain (L) and Skeeter (R)

The first “OMG moment” came when I contacted the friend from whom I had purchased my horse, Rain, in 2012. She didn’t even hesitate before agreeing to take Rain and Rain’s buddy, Skeeter, under her wing. Better still, we didn’t have to worry about getting the mares out to Virginia, because Lindsay is coming through Missouri in a few weeks and was more than happy to pick the girls up on her way home.

Next, we contacted two people about the sale of the three Arabian horses we own and now they have new homes to go to as well. As with the paint horses, the people who wanted the Arabs are genuine, down-to-earth horse lovers who will give our herd a loving home.

Sawyer

Sawyer

A few days later, I made the difficult decision to list my house cats for adoption. Regardless of where we settle, our new home will be smaller and with my Labrador, Gus, in tow, two cats would be too much. I put my request on Facebook and within two hours heard from one of my closest friends. Micheline and I have been friends since we were five years old and I couldn’t imagine a better owner for my favored felines.

Then Micheline told me not only did she want Sawyer and Claudia, but she would take  my entire flock of chickens and my Runner Duck, Ferdinand!

Ferdinand

Ferdinand

Ferdie has been my only duck since the rest of the flock was killed by a roving pack of coyotes in 2011. At his new home, not only will he have other ducks for company, but Runner Ducks at that! Talk about an abundance of miracles!

Now for the icing on the cake: Yesterday, when I sat down to write this blog, I looked up the Scripture that describes faith as, “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is found in Hebrews, chapter 11. It may not sound like much, but the number 11 is of great significance to me. Whenever 11’s appear in my life, transition for the better is at hand.

Finally, one more bit of “OMG” happened when I sat down to watch an episode of The West Wing. I popped in the DVD and the third episode on the disc was titled, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.” I think I am on to something here.

Epiphany

If I had a blog, today I would write about an epiphany named Gus.

My Owain

My Owain

It has been a long year. In the fall of 2014, we said farewell to our beloved border collie, Owain, and his cousin, Hank the yellow lab. Both dogs were fourteen years old, but that only deepens the grief and sense of loss.

Emma

Emma

During the winter, we lost both of our Great Pyrenees: Bree and her sister Emma. They had been with us a decade and with their passing, our world was, for the first time in many, many years, empty of dogs.

Augustus the Wise

Augustus the Wise

With Mom and Dad now in their seventies, I decided it was my turn to step to the plate and keep our canine tradition going. To that end, I bought a yellow lab puppy in March of this year. I named him Augustus (Gus for short) and was suddenly in the midst of full-time parenting.

Gus is an amazing dog. He is handsome, kind, and loves everyone he meets, but little did I know that behind this Woman’s-Best-Friend facade lurked a great challenge: Facing off with an Alpha Dog.

A Dog With Attitude

A Dog With Attitude

I’ve known a lot of dogs in my time, but I have to say, I have never met a canine as completely self-confident as Gus. He fears nothing and bows to no one. Those are good qualities in a lot of ways, but they are a nightmare for the human who has to gear up and assert herself as the Alpha member of the pack.

I am good with animals. I can make friends with almost any creature, including snakes and box turtles, but it turns out, I am not the domineering kind. I want to be friends with my animals, not assert dominance. I tried this tack with Gus and in two months, he was running the show. No matter how loud I spoke, how firmly I asserted the word, “No!”, or how many times I scolded Gus for stealing (clothes, trash, pork chops), I was failing miserably. Gus was happy as a clam, but it was like sharing my home with a young hyena. Something had to give.

In desperation, I reached out to the breeder from whom I got Gus. She’s raised labs for years and I trusted her insights into my predicament. At first, I was totally on board with her suggestions: Loom over Gus, speak loudly and firmly, have him wear a leash in the house so I could catch him more easily. I was even ok with the idea of neutering him a little early. Some days I wanted to do it with my bare hands, so that was ok. Then the hammer dropped. “You also need to start using an electric collar on him,” the breeder said.

My heart stopped for a moment. Use a shock collar? How could I ever do that to an animal? I told the breeder I’d think about that one and though I ordered the collar the next day, it sat in its box for almost a month – until the day Gus tried to eat a baby rabbit.

Baby Rabbit

Baby Rabbit

It was sheer good luck that I stepped into the yard when I did. Gus and the baby bunny were both still as statues, waiting for someone to make a move. I crept up close then launched between the two of them and grabbed for the bunny. I missed, but Gus didn’t. The rabbit yelled and Gus dropped it in surprise. That gave me time to swoop in and gather the bunny to my chest. I got Gus inside the house, did a quick check of baby (thank goodness he wasn’t hurt), then stood in the yard and cried like an infant myself. The madness had to stop. I had to find a way to be in charge of the “Gus Situation” and the collar seemed to be the only bullet left in my gun.

The next day, I reluctantly strapped on the collar and took Gus into the yard. As luck would have it, the baby bunny appeared again and as Gus launched his attack, so did I. The collar was set on level 2 (out of a possible 100 levels), but even at that, one zap was all it took. Gus stopped in his tracks, ran to me for comfort, and started eyeing little critters with suspicion. Gus’ collar also vibrates and after the initial incident, I only had to use the shocker once more before I switched to vibrate and it has been all sunshine and roses from there. Miracles do exists and, boy, do they come in some unlikely packages.

Mom & Gus

Mom & Gus

The Collar has changed our lives. Within a week, Gus was no longer stealing anything, he quit jumping on guests, and has become the gentleman I knew was hiding behind Gus’ inner hyena. I’ve tested the vibration on myself and it isn’t the least bit painful, just annoying and distracting, so I can proceed with Gus’ training in a state of guilt-free bliss. It is Nirvana.

The real test of Gus’ progress came last weekend when my brother’s in-laws came for a visit. One vibe from the collar and Gus was the consummate host. He kept his feet on the ground, kissed liberally, but never nipped, and he spent his entire afternoon sitting by one guest, then another, as if making sure no one was left out. I was so happy I cried for a while after everyone left. My joy was complete.

My Boy Gus

My Boy Gus

Aside from the obvious, “Don’t make snap judgments” lesson, I have also learned that when dealing with animals, asserting dominance isn’t about being aggressive or, God forbid, abusive. It is about finding a way to be heard. As an introvert of epic proportions, it is hard for me to assert myself. I was afraid Gus would come to fear me if I made demands of him, but to my surprise, our bond is closer than ever. Now that Gus realizes he isn’t invincible, he sees me as his go-to person when he feels unsure and when he needs to feel safe, he knows I am there to stand beside him.

So as we enter a new autumn, an autumn of beginnings, I move forward renewed, with another dear friend at my side. Gus, this quote is for you:

He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion. – Author Unknown