Dogs Say Nothing

The day before we left that hotel in Arkansas Bella broke a nail. It had gotten caught in a grate that covered a drainage slope in the sidewalk near the laundry room. We were leaving the next day.

Bella refused to walk on her foot, so S. carried her. He loaded her into the truck and we left for Florida. He carried her into the next hotel, both of them resentful over their predicment. Bella was heavy and they never liked each other.

In fact, S. had been afraid only some weeks prior that she was going to bite him during play. See, Bella wasn’t really aggressive, but sometimes she would get a glint in her eye that was hard to read. I had told him to quit, because I hadn’t been sure either.

But they were reliant on each other while we travelled from Jacksonville, Florida (where I stood in the ocean while S. and his men swam further out; a rare day out for all) to Northern Michigan, somewhere near the Canadian border. I was as crabby as Bella, riding in the passenger’s seat and being four months pregnant or so.

It was late at night when we neared our exit. Bella was laying in the backseat while I manned the GPS. Suddenly, the signs on the road were telling us to get off now. The border was ahead.

“Get off,” I said.

“What does the GPS say?” S. asked, for the GPS hadn’t spoken up yet. The USA and Canada flags were painted on the next overhead sign.

“Just follow the fuckin’ pictures,” I had said.

“But what does the GPS say?”

“Take the exit,” the GPS finally replied.

Bella, as usual, said nothing.

Change of Tune

I gotta stop talking about my “near-death”. Seriously, talking about that day gets me all panicky. But I can tell you something about Bella. And then we can go back to talking about the kids.

You want to stop for the night? We can. As soon as we find a town.

As for Bella. I’ve gotta tell you this one. I tell it to everyone ‘cuz I think it’s kind of important. I got her when I was like thirteen but I was like 16 when we decided to go for a walk one day. A walk that turned into more of a struggle to get back to society.

I don’t remember why, but I was pissed off about something and decided to take Bella for a walk one day. My car wasn’t working, there was no way to get it started right that second, and I was sick of being in the house! So I strapped her leash on and we set out.

We were gonna go far. Fuck it. I was pissed about something I can’t remember now. Bella was ready – a strong, agile, cheerful, and energetic dog. Fuck ’em, she seemed to agree with me as we strode down our street.

Northern Illinois towns are all surrounded by fields. Fields of soybeans, of corn, of junk. We reached a “small” field soon enough, one that we would cut through to make it to another road faster.

Were we prepared? Not a bit. I think I had tennis shoes on but that’s it when it came to preparedness that day. The field was dry nearest the road and we easily made it down into the rows of older, dry corn that nobody was caring for. The sun shone hot on us. It was fun.

Soon we reached a creek. Not a real creek but one of those arroyos that appear in fields – most likely full of run off. It was low so we crossed it easily. We were doin’ it – strikin’ off on our own, I mean.

During none of this time was I delusional. Just a dumb kid walking with her dog. But “outside” is still much more difficult to traverse than many realize. We soon found that out.

After the arroyo we reached the end of the drier field and the grass became much taller. I couldn’t see the road we were trying to reach anymore. All we could see was grass. Mud was suddenly deep and sucking us in. I had to choose – struggle on or turn back.

We turned back. And turning back was the hardest part. The grass was so tall, the mud so thick and everwhere. And what direction were we going? Finally we came back to drier soil, but we were in a different area and the arroyo was running full right in front of us.

Arroyos can be deceiving – they look shallow but their currents are strong. I, not having crossed many arroyos before, took two steps in, almost lost my balance, and jumped to the other side. Bella had waited, watching me cross, and thought she could do it then.

She had been more tired than I had realized and as soon as she set down a paw into the creek the water picked her up and started to carry her. Thinking fast, I pulled her to me with the leash still connected to her collar. We sat down on the ground after that. Soon enough we picked up and went home, mud-covered, wet, hot, and scared.

As a leader, I sometimes fuck up. I sometimes misjudge currents that I haven’t seen before. But I know an arroyo now. Bella and I never did that shit again – walking around where we don’t know the ground.

The point? I don’t know. I’ll give you a minute to think of one. I see neon up ahead.

First Day

So, Dick was a real prick, right? He was old. His wife, Marcela, (no, I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP) was German (pretty positive) and she usually stayed inside. Dick’s place was off a scenic highway that led from one small town to a bigger city. A curvy road. Fun to drive, but oh, so dangerous. A big river gave its steep bank to the road. Don’t over-steer! You’ll go right into the water.

People liked to drive fast on that route. Why not? Rules are made to be broken. Are all of them? Is there not another cliche that says without rules chaos will lead instead? And chaos is one grizzled, mean, chain-smoking cowboy. Or cowgirl. She (or he) rides a mean horse, one that’s gasping for water in the middle of the desert (Y’all seen Hidalgo?). Desperation can make you fearless. Or it can make you bold. It can also make you vulnerable. And it can turn you cold.

Anyway. I was thirteen, and the first class with Dick was on a Thursday (they all were). I was starting high school the next week and I was terrified of all the rumors. What was a period? (LOL) How did lunches work? Would I have any friends? Did those showers really work?

I was terrified of the training class, too. Because my mother had told me rumors. She is the one who called him, she knew where he was. My last mentor had been a woman who taught me to play the oboe. She was great, too. Just a little harsher.

I thought I looked great! Thought I looked cute! I had some flip-flops on (yellow with a plastic daisy glued to them) and shorts, I think. Dick snapped at me as soon as I strode up, pulling that stubborn Bull Terrier behind me. She was a great bitch. Beautiful, funny, strong, agile. Stocky and tough. Quiet but sensitive.

“What are you gonna do with flip-flops on?” He snapped. I had not even said my name. The memory is clear because of the embarrassment I felt. This is not the only time that Dick called me out, but this was on the first day.

I didn’t have shoes, so he said oh well! We would tour his woods, then. Everyone (older people with skittish German Shepherds, mixed breeds, all kinds of dogs) traipsed up a hill and onto the path. That path led into a confusing agility course – created almost entirely by nature. Old tires and boards had been used to create make-shift agility obstacles among the pine needles littered by all those beautiful trees.

Sucked. Cause I had fucking flip-flops on. I also had to learn to put the choker on right and to give it a good snap – so that the stubborn Isabella could hear it, as well as feel it. We made it. We all had to go through the obstacles – even me, with a brat of a dog and the wrong footwear.

“Dumb on a leash is what you’ve got there,” he liked to tell me.

“I know, but I think she’s beautiful,” I would always smile, in return.

I always came prepared after that first day. I had learned my lesson. Dick gave me leads for conformation, and we always worked on showmanship after the regular training classes. Just me and him. Bull Terriers are dumb on a leash. But not in the ways you think.

That dog still puts a smile on my face, and I can feel her breathing. Grief can be caused by anything. It’s sad. It’s tragic.

But she was hilarious! I have so many great memories! She’s still here, snuggling up next to me!

They call Bull Terriers clowns, pigs (dog world terms meant to be endearing), but I just called her Bella. And nothin’ beats sittin’ under the sun with a dog, remembering your teachers, not saying a damn word at all.

Thinking on a Maria

What a disappointing night. I have a lot of stuff to do (for a lot of people) and I’m just pacing around, forgetting what I’m doing. The life of a “writer” is such a “romantic” one. I believe that anyone alive can write. Because writing makes you feel alive.

Anyway! It’s time for some simple language. I had to talk last night. And I kept leaving the train car, to go looking for a passenger in another one. As I was talking to some of my favorite people (my nephew recently got braces. Ouch! Now, beauty is pain. And pain comes from beauty. Blah, blah, blah), los truenos (thunder) y relampagos (lightning) were threatening a storm. Ah, but what is a threat if you don’t bring it?

It didn’t rain last night. Well, I don’t think it did. Finally slept. It’s raining now. Which is a disappointment to me. I wanted to turn my compost today! I wanted to show you my muse! (She’s got too much paper in at the moment [literally] and I’ve got to mix new stuff up).

Inspiration is a bitch. She comes. She goes. She likes you. She likes you not. But as some wise writers once wrote me, inspiration must be sought (in everything/one) and an example is not always the best teacher. I’m a kinetic learner, which means I learn through practice. An italiana taught me that. And her name was Maria.

I’m referring to Montessori. Yes, she is the original muse. She taught me how to find inspiration. How to look for it. Figuratively, and yes, literally. It’s exciting to know the method of your mentor. And boy, do I love a mentor.

My favorite mentor was an old man named Dick (life writes the best puns lol). He was a dog trainer with a great story. He traveled to Germany as a boy, and learned to train the hardest dogs. The dogs that bark and bite. He taught me everything. But we’ve lost touch. I miss him. I miss him a lot. I don’t know if he’s alive, what he’s doing. But my story, I learned from him.

I learn from the Marias. And the Marys, too. And certainly, a Marisol.

I have more to share. So buckle up. Let’s go for a drive.

Composting with Critters

If you read my posts on composting, you might think: “So, you have a big pile of food in your backyard, and a smaller pile of dog shit?” Yes, I do. I have seen some passerby look at it, too. But I don’t care. Call the city. I would fight them on this. I would even throw food in my yard right in front of you, if it came to it. Also, the piles are separate. There are so many good reasons to compost, but I don’t get paid to do research, so I won’t list them here.

The dog shit pile is getting much smaller because we only have one dog now. This dog, our thirteen-year-old Westie, is a crazy dog, and I wouldn’t recommend the breed to first-time dog owners.

He barks incessantly, especially if we aren’t following the “rules” of the house. It’s my house, but my mom lives here and so, in the mind of her faithful companion, her rules are to govern. (He WILL bite you for horseplay, even me, his favorite).

He, his name is Joey, disappears occasionally, to be found on the front doorstep. “What a good boy!” we exclaim. We praise his achievement, only to find later that he was gone for hours. Much later we find that he was playing at a local football practice, wandering around the vet’s office, or (about two years ago) impregnating the female dog of a neighbor. We had a good laugh with Roger (the neighbor) and good homes were found for the puppies.

Joey also has a problem with…overeating and throwing up? I don’t think it’s bloat related (something that I have researched, and that you can find here on the AKC website) because he has done it throughout his life and survives. We always fed our dogs separately, as a way to combat this, but he continues to do it. We joke that he is bulimic, but it’s really not funny (for either species). Well, since I started the pile of food in the backyard, Joey has had a problem.

Joey won’t stay out of that damn, rotting food. I don’t care what it is, he’s out there in it. He, like most dogs, stays away from the dog poop, but he just can’t help himself with the leftovers and has had several tummy aches over the last few years. It really worries us, as it probably should. I rub Joey’s stomach, pat his back, and try to get him to burp before he vomits. This has helped in the past, but doesn’t always.

Also, I noticed a small skunk rounding the corner of our shed the other night. Joey and I were on the screened porch, the door locked. Joey didn’t see it, so there was no problem. I love skunks and leave them to their own devices. Joey loves them too, but they’re not allowed to fraternize.

My point is this: dogs and compost don’t mix. In addition, expect other animals around the pile. The birds love compost, as well as chipmunks, squirrels, skunks apparently, and who knows what else? I suspect a coyote has come around once or twice and I don’t even want to mess with the raccoons. I need an inventive solution and I suspect some chicken wire will do the trick. I don’t want to keep the birds from their feast, however. The raccoons will probably be able to tear down whatever I devise, and the coyotes can just stay away. My main priority is Joey, who is aging and eats just fine inside.

Watch your dogs around piles of rotting food. They shouldn’t eat it for the same reasons we shouldn’t. And fights around the pile aren’t safe either (I didn’t even talk about wild cats, one of which injured Joey’s eye a couple years ago). Dogs are pretty tough, but if you do suspect something off-limits has been eaten, take a list (mental or physical) of recent compost items to the vet with you. Check out the information from the AKC website about bloat, a serious condition that I have never witnessed but have often heard stories. Watch for bloat in all of your bigger dogs, as the AKC article states, and in dogs that tend to eat quickly. Please don’t allow your dogs to eat items that are not compostable: such as plastic bags, candy wrappers, other trash that ends up in the pile, or anything containing residues of chemicals or poison.

IMPORTANT: COOKED BONES DO NOT GO IN THE COMPOST PILE. Cooked bones can shatter within the body of the animal that ate them. Please dispose of these in the garbage. Other than supervising your dog around unsuitable food waste, composting with dogs and other animals around should go off without a hitch.

A Composting Confession

My compost pile has existed for almost three whole years now. I feel relief thinking about all the food I am keeping from the landfill. I’ve even used the dirt consistently this year: filling holes, building up the land around my pile, etc. But now, I want to do more.

Recently, I’ve been taking multiple, full buckets to the pile. These buckets are filled with all kinds of fruit and vegetable waste, leftover pasta and pizza, coffee grounds, expired dry goods, and some paper products (I won’t lie, I threw some shrimp pasta in, too). I am picky about the cardboard that I add because I’m not sure which boxes are treated and with what, or if they can be composted naturally. However, I’ve been somewhat ambitious in resolving another problem.

From the beginning I was faced with a dilemma that any pet owner is all too familiar with: what to do with, well…dog shit. We are supposed to pick it up and throw it away, right? And I usually do that, unless the dog relieves itself in a hidden or less traveled area. But it appalls me to pick up dog poop with a little (sometimes dyed or scented) plastic bag, wrap up the bag and tie it, and then throw it into the trash can, destined for the landfill. How will it decompose there? How will the flies reach it, or the air? Or the sun and rain? What happens to the poop inside of the plastic bag after five, ten years? These questions are disgusting to ponder but entirely interesting to me.

I know it is not safe to add a large amount of dog poop to the compost pile. An instinct of some kind tells me NOT to do it. What is seeping out of the dog poop? Will it mix into the dirt that I add to the vegetable garden? For those reasons, I don’t put the dog shit there. I started thinking of a place for a poop pile.

New grapevine grows around and over my dog poop pile. A few vines stretch toward a blue-painted trellis (bottom right).

After a lot of thought (I’ve actually been thinking about this for years and years), I started putting the dog waste at the back of the yard, in a separate area, beneath an old grapevine tangle and some junk trees, eternal victims of the invasive grapevine. Its darker here and the weeds grow where they can beneath the grapevine. As of yet, no one has noticed the new cloud of happy flies and I’ve kept a few warm, plastic bags out of the landfill.

The thing is, poop has been decomposing on Earth for…..well, I’m not sure how long, but there has to be a responsible way to do it. I’m just trying to do what I can.

The Story About a Dog Named Fortuna

In February of 2018, I lost my beloved Bull Terrier named Isabella. She had come into my life when I was thirteen and left me when I was twenty-five, married with two kids. She had seen me through all of my milestones, had followed me to every new apartment in Minnesota, to the motel in Arkansas. She helped me welcome my firstborn. We were so close we breathed in sync sometimes. But at 12 years of age, tumors in her mammary glands were destroying her and she no longer had much will to continue living. We hired a local vet to come to our house and euthanize her. It was one of the most difficult moments of my life and some days I still don’t feel whole. I have her ashes now in a box in my closet. I am looking for the perfect urn for her. But that’s not my story today. This story is about the lucky dog that came after her. The lucky dog named Fortuna.

Bella was not my first dog, though she was the first dog that I handled and finished in conformation dog shows. I trained her with the help of several mentors in the dog world and she became Champion Crescent Silmaril’s Quixotic. As a small girl, I helped my mother raise and sell two litters of American Bulldogs. Right before I got Bella, as proof of my responsibility and resolve, I helped rehab a Cocker Spaniel, obedience and house training her so that she was able to move to a forever home. I have some experience with dogs. In fact, I’ve never lived without one. My mother’s Westie, Bella’s oldest friend, is sitting at my feet as I type. Working with dogs, I learned some important life skills: responsibility, professionalism, loyalty, compassion. But Fortuna taught me more than the rest of our old companions combined.

After Bella was gone, I grieved in a strange way. I drank a little too much, argued with my father, and gave up on my studies. Then, I convinced my husband and mother (she lives with us) to cough up money for a German Shepherd puppy that we’d spotted in the newspaper. “We need a new puppy in the house,” I claimed. “It will help me remember Bella.” Though my husband was not ready for another dog, he was enchanted by the idea of owning a German Shepherd. He likes the breed but has little knowledge of it. I thought I knew enough. So we got the puppy. We named her Fortuna.

She was a beautiful dog but was under socialized and awfully scared. We thought we could easily build her confidence by taking her to the dog park, travelling to see family with her, etc. Joey, the Westie, seemed to help her settle in. Everything was more difficult than we anticipated, however. Fortuna, named after the little girl from Spirit: Riding Free on Netflix, was acting very aggressive and scaring everyone in our neighborhood with her barking. I was terrified she would hurt someone. I soon found out I was pregnant with our second child. My son was only two years old. Fortuna made me nervous but I thought it was due to my own shortcomings.

This is Fortuna as a young dog, sitting in one of my garden boxes. She had to be chained because she would leap over and out of the yard to run after squirrels.
This is Fortuna as a young dog, sitting in one of my garden boxes. She had to be chained because she would leap over and out of the yard to run after squirrels.

Indeed, I was not doing my best for Fortuna. I was tired in my first trimester. Extremely so. I didn’t walk her like I should have. I didn’t get the training done. This is not to say that Fortuna was not well cared for. We loved her and wanted her to be a part of the family. So we contacted some training professionals and sought their help. They explained that she was fearful and possessive; not a good combo. We started working on some small obedience tasks. I had the baby and Fortuna seemed to improve. I was feeling pretty good.

Fortuna soon decided her own fortune.

As I was standing in my laundry room, sorting laundry, my son talking a mix of Spanish and English to me at my side, Fortuna sidled in. Now in my house, for a time, there was a rule about being in the laundry room with Fortuna at the same time. The door could not be closed, the baby could not be in the room, and food could not be out. Fortuna would freak out in that room, we don’t know why. I broke my own damn rule. Fortuna freaked out. At my son. She growled and snapped at him. I grabbed her throat and shoved her backward out of the room. I walked her right to the kennel and slammed the door behind her. My baby was crying. I chalked it up to my irresponsibility and tried to be more vigilant until I could speak to my mother face to face. I knew we had a problem. My mother arrived back home some days later.

The night my mother arrived at my house, we sat on the porch, catching up. We talked about the dogs, the kids, and the garden. I held Fortuna’s leash firmly at my side, occasionally correcting her with her pincher collar. Suddenly, the French door swung open upon my dining room and Sergio burst out onto the porch. Before he could shout “¡Abue!” Fortuna leaped into the air growling towards my son. If she had been loose….well, I try not to think “What if?”.

I kept Fortuna in the kennel for a while thereafter except for walks or feeding times. When she was outside, no one else was allowed outside. I called the professionals the next day. They offered me a few names of shelters but all were full. I called the Humane Society and they said I could bring her in. I wanted rid of her. I couldn’t look at her the same and it was beyond irresponsible to keep her at this point. She was dangerous.

When I took her to the Humane Society I was turned away. She scared the volunteers working that day and I would have to wait until someone with more experience was there to bring her in. They didn’t have high hopes for her and I was sobbing when I left. I called another number they gave me. A voicemail was all I got.

I felt like a failure when I brought that dog home. I had failed my children by having a dangerous dog in the house. I had failed the dog by letting her confidence issues get out of control. And I had literally failed at getting rid of her. So I would wait another two days, I thought. I walked Fortuna and put her in the kennel for the night. She looked at me like I was a traitor.

The next morning went as usual. Everyone was kept at a safe distance from each other. I was on high alert. Until I received a text from a girl that said she worked at the professional boarding and training facility that I had sought advice from. She wanted to give Fortuna a chance but already owned a male dog. I said I would give her some money towards the spaying. We agreed to meet at 3:00 p.m. that day. I readied Fortuna’s things and her food. The girl arrived.

“Thank you so much. I’m so glad she’s going to someone who will know exactly what she needs,” I said after we had talked about Fortuna and she had introduced herself (with some barking and growling on the part of the German Shepherd) to the dog. She was not afraid and knew what she was doing. She took control immediately of Fortuna and led her to her car where she left her in her kennel with the car’s hatch open. We stood and talked some more.

“Do you want to know the main reason I was so interested in Fortuna?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“Well, do you know what Fortuna means?”

“Oh yeah,” I replied and explained that we speak Spanish at home and that my son loved the show on Netflix about the girl and her horse.

“Well, one side of my family is Italian. And in Italian Fortuna means lucky too. That part of my family also raised German Shepherds and the craziest part is their last name is Fortuna!”

I couldn’t believe it. But it saved her life. And it taught me to follow your rules. “No big dogs around little faces,” my mother says. It also taught me to do your due diligence but know when to throw in the towel. I thought I knew enough but you can never know enough.

This experience even taught me the importance of properly grieving for someone you’ve lost. I never should have tried to replace Isabella because she is irreplaceable. Each dog is unique in personality and needs. I’ve also learned that dogs are great but kids ALWAYS come first.

Ironically, I learned, above all, the power of a good, lucky name.