Friday, December 16, 2005

Drama and Trauma

Hi everyone,

I’m sorry to be out of touch for so long. It was an eventful few weeks after the last report and I wish I could say all was well but it was drama in spades. Fortunately Wyatt and I came out the other end with only a few psychic and physical scratches and hopefully a little wisdom.

First, a friend noted that mass emails are so 1999, so you can now get your fill of Wyatt at this new blog (where this and past reports are posted):

The drama began at the dog park, Wyatt’s personal Disneyland and rare refuge from his leash. Wyatt was milling about, soaking in the musky dogginess and his lofty status...

...when a friendly border collie approached. I was calmly watching from five feet away when this tail-wagging collie pounced fangs-first out of nowhere onto Wyatt. The two grappled for a few seconds in what seemed like harmless roughhousing until Wyatt was pinned to the ground and yelped in pain. I ran to find blood dripping from a one-inch cut below Wyatt’s right eye and another under his throat.

The other owners and I decided the cuts weren’t serious and the collie’s owner apologized profusely (and guessed the collie attacked to protect a smaller nearby dog), but the incident raised two kinds of stress.

The first is another common parental anxiety: the world is a dangerous place. The immediate impact was a suspension of dog park visits and a lot of Neosporin swabs, which Wyatt would frustratingly either evade or try to eat. The deeper impact was the reality that danger lurked everywhere every time I took out my intensely curious puppy. Unlike the straws and bars of soap that I can predictably place out of harm’s way at home, I can’t control the dogs, cars, and poisonous plants of the world. Worse, the more I try, the more anxious I get and restricted Wyatt feels. I’m like a Jewish mother that hasn’t figured out the right balance of freedom and safety.

The second impact was more philosophical. The attack left a small but clear gash on Wyatt’s adorable face. He still got supermodel treatment from strangers but I knew the difference and felt bothered at the prospect of an unsightly scar… and then bothered about feeling bothered.

I’m attached to the squishy, Buddhist ideal that beauty is superficial and compassion should be doled unconditionally, even though I fail this ideal so ridiculously often that I should get lumps of coal every Christmas. I know we’re all genetically and socially biased toward attractiveness; it’s a main reason I chose the Siberian breed. So of course, fate throws a curveball and I’m forced to confront how much beauty really matters. It threw another when I moved into a house with a terrier named Boston who is just as friendly, affectionate, and certainly more obedient than Wyatt, but I think most would agree is not quite as cuddly…

I feel a slight heartache every time someone adores Wyatt and ignores Boston, especially when that someone is me.

Since this report is going to be a short novel and you’re probably on a bathroom break by now, I’ll cut to the bottom line – yes, Wyatt’s looks are a source of unearned affection and pride; yes, I feel this reinforces the unfairness of life’s genetic lottery; no, I don’t know how to resolve this. For the moment, I am content to table this conflict and simply be grateful that the scar is gone and that I enjoy making Wyatt happy as much as ever.

A week after the attack, I noticed that Wyatt was eating less frequently and had lost interest in previously irresistible treats. I thought this might be due to the irresponsibly large amount of human food I spoil him with – he gets a nibble of almost every meal and has become my pre-rinse dishwasher (a nice little perk of dog ownership). But Wyatt had been eating a lot of grass, which apparently dogs do to settle an upset stomach, and I soon learned why. During a walk, Wyatt strangely stopped in a crosswalk and strained to poop in the middle of a street. As I looked closer, I was horrified to find a live worm squirming through the mess. (I took a picture for the vet but out of decency I’ll spare you poopworm.jpg.)

The vet said Wyatt was infected with roundworms and easily treated with a dewormer, but now my parental anxiety extended from the outside world and inside my home to the very insides of my dog. I had been lax in letting Wyatt eat random foods and plants on the street, but now I had to limit his intake to certifiable food; another rule to enforce. How do parents sleep at night? I found myself wondering one night if there was some SIDS equivalent for dogs where my perfectly sheltered puppy just wouldn’t wake up one morning.

I decided my wounded, infested, bulimic dog and I had a rough week and deserved a treat, so we walked to the Cheesecake Factory and I bought myself a plate of pasta and Wyatt an entrée of pork chops and spinach (clearly a parental indulgence). Wyatt surprisingly delayed gratification, going for the spinach first and only then the succulent pork chops.

One night, I decided to run a scientifically-valid experiment to determine Wyatt’s favorite bone. I bought three flavors of organic N-bones, a strand of rawhide, and a bully stick (which I later learned is made from the hanging parts of a bull), then spread them out for a deliriously excited Wyatt to taste test. The bone completely devoured first would be crowned the winner.

Wyatt expectedly indulged like a kid on Halloween night, gorging all day to the point that he would exhaustedly collapse, only to keep gnawing a bone with his head laying sideways on the ground. After hours of chewing, the chicken-flavored N-Bone narrowly edged the bully stick as Wyatt’s winner (and I needed a dumptruck that night to clean up the inevitable aftermath).

This is where I expected this Wyatt Report to end - a little drama, a little joy, a few morals, and a happy ending. The following day, I woke up and passed my roommate:

“Have you seen Wyatt?” he asked.

“This morning?... no, I let him sleep outside last night.”

“Oh… I don’t see him in the backyard.”

My blood pressure rose immediately and after I thoroughly inspected our yard, I had learned that my Siberian, born of the breed that a dozen owners had warned me have a strong escape instinct, was gone.

I can not convey the sense of loss I felt; it was more intense than any I can remember. Wyatt was not just the most playful, beautiful, and curious dog I had known; he was mine, the first living mine of importance. Only two months had passed but I had already bonded to him and considered him family. Those of you with close pets probably understand, those of you without probably don’t. I wouldn’t have two months ago.

My overactive imagination raced with terrible possibilities: Wyatt smashed by a car, Wyatt drowned in a canal, Wyatt eaten by wolves, all of them my fault. I had already seen Wyatt dig under our fence the first day I moved in, producing this perfect image of Siberian wiliness:

Wyatt had spent several days in the yard without escaping but now he had somehow done it.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was cycling through the textbook stages of grief and loss, acronymed DABDA. First, denial: I couldn’t believe Wyatt had escaped after all the measures I took. He must be hiding nearby somewhere. This is just karmic payback for the time I was three and thought it would be hilarious to hide from my mother for an hour under a clothes rack in a mall. (Mom, I understand now and I’m really sorry.)

After half an hour of checking and re-checking the house, I hit stage 2: anger. What the hell is wrong with that dog?! After all the love I’ve given him, why would he run away? I knew how irrational these thoughts were but that did nothing to prevent them. Our minds work in strange ways.

After an hour, I entered stage 3: bargaining. As I drove around and around the neighborhood, interrogating every person I found, I was brokering my deal with God. ‘God, please give him back to me unharmed and I promise I’ll be better, I promise I’ll tithe.’ 

I called Lori (Wyatt’s breeder) and my friend Kay for advice and dismissed her suggestion of immediately calling local shelters. Wyatt had a collar tag and a microchip, I said, and if anyone found him, I’d be contacted immediately. This would soon be added to my healthy-sized record of mistakes.

Three and a half hours after I learned he was gone, I received the call, an unfamiliar number:

“Hi, this is the Palo Alto animal shelter. Do you own a dog named Wyatt?”

“Yes! Is he okay?!”

I knew what was coming was a moment of truth: the expected second something of extreme importance and uncertainty becomes certain, the tipping between ecstasy or devastation - admission letters, blood test results, marriage proposals, the last seconds of air before your lungs expand or drown.

“Yes, he’s fine.”

I can not describe the relief and joy I felt at that moment, just as I can not convey the despair I would have felt had the answer been different. I now can not comprehend the suffering parents endure when they learn their child is fatally sick, has just died, or worst, been senselessly killed. I felt how there is no comparing that loss to the loss of an item, even a very rare or expensive item. Items are replaceable, and even if they aren’t, we aren’t built to bond with them as we do with the living. 

I acutely felt how relationships are irreplaceable, which honestly made me question my assumption of having children, a commitment where I would never want to endure the fourth stage of despair and work somehow toward the final stage of acceptance.

Finally, the happy ending: I arrive at the shelter (after apologizing to Kay and Lori, who are both inspirationally understanding) and find the agent who called me. She tells me a neighbor found Wyatt roaming around my street without his collar tag (because he ate it?) around 8am and turned him into the shelter. The only reason the shelter knew to call me was because Kay called shelters on my behalf despite my dismissal. Noting I could have saved myself all this worry if I had listened to Kay, I am deciding how much chocolate I will buy her when the shelter brings Wyatt out. 

Looking just like he did the night before, he leapt on me at first sight, licked me on the face with a series of kisses, then gave me a few frustrating barks as if he should be asking where I have been. I tell him he’s an ungrateful mutt and that he’s grounded for a month but that I love him anyway. Now I just have to protect him from everything in the world, especially himself.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

He's a morning dog

He was rearing to go at 6am for my first morning workout in... what may be my first morning workout. :) We stopped at IHOP afterward for breakfast:

He wasn't much for the frilly crepes but scarfed the ham omlette and hashbrowns. I think he's more of a meat and potatoes dog.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Settling In

Hi everyone,

The chronicles with Wyatt continue as we both settle in. It's been an experience learning about the responsibility of (pet) parenthood.

I'm now fully steeped in parental anxiety from the common realization that my beloved child is constantly trying to kill itself. A straw is no longer a straw, but a choking hazard. A bar of soap is no longer a bar of soap, but a poison hazard. Any mysterious noise is a potential catastrophe. The energy and curiosity of huskies is especially troublesome as they inspect every nook in their environment and approach even clearly dangerous things, like moving cars, with excitement. 

The list of destroyed things has been modest so far and only include a styrofoam cup, a sheet of paper, and half a roast beef sandwich. (The destruction is so thorough that I'm sure there's a business opportunity merging dogs and waste management.) My room also often has the faint smell of dog poop, though I haven't found any evidence and am fairly sure I don't emit that naturally. I thought having a dog would help me relax but I think its anxieties make its relaxation factor a push (though the overall experience has definitely been positive).

I've planned but not yet taken obedience classes so I've been winging Wyatt's education. There have been fewer presents around the house but I'm finding it difficult to house-train unless I catch him in the act. He now handles the house stairs up and down with ease, though some new stairs still scare him. Siberians are notoriously intelligent but stubborn, like cats. It's not that they don't understand; it's that they hold out for different terms.

I am amazed at how much joy Wyatt spreads. Walking through downtown Palo Alto, we'll pass maybe 500 people; at least half smile when they see him, at least one in twenty say something about him, and about one in forty stop to pet him. The pride of owning an attractive dog is nice, but seeing the joy he brings complete strangers just by his presence is wonderful. 

The response is even universal across demographics, differing only in how it's expressed, from the elderly woman ("what a cutie!") to the punk teenager ("that dog is fucking stoked!"). My only complaint is that if we're competing for a co-ed's attention, we all know who wins that contest hands down and going away.

He even gets supermodel treatment at the dog park where other dogs seem to prefer playing with him, some quite aggressively...

Wyatt's reaction to all types of people is just as impressive. He approaches the business professional, the beautiful co-ed, and the homeless person with equal interest and affection. To him, they are all just potential friends.

A friend of mine said that dogs are the only true Buddhists because they are constantly content with the present. Seeing how much Wyatt craves anything I'm eating, I'm not sure I agree, but seeing his undiscriminating compassion for everyone he meets, excepting pigeons and small animals, is inspiring. I plan to sign up Wyatt for a program at Lytton Gardens senior community where people bring their pets to play with the many elderly residents who have few visitors.
When I was mulling whether to get Wyatt or a different breed, I was concerned about how independent siberians can be. I wanted a dog that I could really bond with and other breeds like retrievers or shepherds are known for their loyalty (and neediness). The past week has reassured me that I made the right choice. Wyatt likes affection and often happily returns it, but he's also happy gnawing a bone or exploring the world, allowing me to get work done. The balance seems just right.

However, I do think I've fallen behind on helping Wyatt expend his copious energy. Siberians were bred to pull sleds for hours so even two half-hour walks a day are not enough to prevent him from often bouncing off the walls (which is both amusing and troubling). I use an ellipitical almost every day but hate the feel of running outdoors. It's a habit I'm going to try starting for Wyatt's sake.

Finally, I'm starting to notice the idiosyncracies that come with friendship. Wyatt will jog at normal pace on concrete but zigzag madly on grass (maybe it's a foot massage?). After drinking from a bowl, he'll often splash in it and spill water everywhere. If a treat is tossed in the air, he'll let it happily boink off his head and onto the floor where it's quickly hoovered. He likes apples but not oranges, rawhide but not tennis balls, being brushed but not being bathed. With no common language, finding the patterns of like and dislike has been challenging and rewarding.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Strange New Place

Hi everyone,

This is the first in a series that I hope to write on my adventures with Wyatt. I've been told many times that owning a dog, especially a high-maintenance one like a husky, is a trial for the experience of having kids. I'm excited to see what Wyatt will teach me.

After the three-hour drive from picking him up, it was raining hard and he seemed both scared and amused that this water thing he usually drinks from the ground was coming from the sky. I had worried about him having separation anxiety, but the ride home went fine, except for when he started whining. Wondering what was up, I took him out and he relieved himself almost immediately. It was an important first reassurance that I could understand a little of his language. 

An hour into dog ownership, I experienced one of the ironies parents often mention: the moment you look away is the moment bad things happen. I had kept a constant eye on him from the moment he entered the door, but after the five seconds I looked away to cook pasta, I turned to see him pooping on the welcome rug of a roommate - welcome, indeed. I took him outside but he had completed his plan.

For the rest of the night, I gave him lots of water and belly rubs and he seemed to appreciate both. I thought these first impressions could be influential so I strived to be caring. I worried he was too wired to sleep, but after five minutes with the lights out, he was zonked on the floor, safe and sound in his new home.

The next morning, I woke up how we all should be fortunate to - with a loved one two inches from our face and awash in sloppy kisses. Is there any better way to start the day? We ate breakfast together and as I turned to wash my bowl, another bad thing hit - this time five of them on the same welcome rug. I told Wyatt the joke was funny the first time but not so much now. I cleaned up, yet noticed the hallway now had a distinctly unwelcoming, geriatric hospital smell. I'm glad Wyatt is adorable because his roommates could get resentful quickly.

As I finished cleaning up, I heard a roommate's door in the hallway crack open, then immediately shut. I looked to see Wyatt staring intently on the door as it opened again and quickly shut. Was it the wind? I knocked and my Korean roommate Ying opened up. "What is that?" he asked in distress. I explained Wyatt was the dog I had told him I was getting, but since his English isn't great, I guess he didn't understand. I imagine opening your door in the morning to a wolf-like creature staring up at you is unsettling.

The next twenty minutes was a game of fear and trust. Ying would open the door a bit, Wyatt would approach and bark or sniff, then both would retreat. I thought introducing Wyatt to roommates would be no problem since he was so friendly with strangers, but he barked several times at Ying, me, and my Indian roommate who also came out to shower - "where am I? where's Bandit? are you going to eat me?". I got some treats and finally convinced Ying to open his hand and feed them to Wyatt, but he still didn't feel comfortable petting him - baby steps.
After breakfast on the third floor, I headed down to my room on the second floor and another drama began: the dreaded stairs down. Wyatt was not used to steep steps and apparently going down is scarier than going up. For twenty minutes, I stooped to his level, gradually getting closer to the top of the stairs with treats in hand. The closest I could get him was a foot from the top, where his facial expression acutely communicated his pain: "I really want that food... I really don't like the stairs... what do I do?" I finally decided to carry him down, whining all the way. This would take some time.

Next was Wyatt's IPO, his first public appearance. I drove to Stanford, parked at the coffeehouse, and took him toward campus. The impact was immediate: a shockwave of adorement, Wyatt potion no. 9. Wyatt affected a ton of bypassers who would smile, point, or approach to pet him.

This is how supermodels must feel, I thought. The power of beauty. We spent the rest of the day eating our respective crepe and bone...

..laying on the grass...

and causing trouble...

It was a strange and wonderful form of companionship - a loving, energetic, unpredictable friend who speaks a different language. How do we communicate? It's a language I hope to learn.

Friday, June 10, 2005

I'm a father

Hi everyone,

I'm excited to report that I am now the proud father of a beautiful, one-year old, purebred siberian husky named Wyatt.

Named for the gunslinger whose trademark was whacking badmen on the forehead with a shotgun, he is significantly cuter and friendlier than his namesake. He is one of two sons from Shadow of Denali, a male show ring champion, and Angel Among Us, a spunky female. He has won a few show accolades but unlike his brother Bandit, is slightly too small for the official standard for siberian huskies. He has thus settled for being merely the most adorable undersized husky in the nation.

Wyatt's favorite activities include belly rubs, rolling in grass, digging through water, licking food particles, ignoring commands, walking his human, and leaping on strangers to deliver sloppy kisses on the mouth. Despite my entrepreneurial leanings, he will not be available for rental to attract women, though buying his owner lunch will earn any windfall of being near him. I encourage you to open several Gmail accounts now for the deluge of photos I will be sending over the next fifteen years.

Please join me in welcoming Wyatt to the family.