Hey, Dog Whisperer: My Dog Begs for Meatballs, and Other Problems

Gus at rest, but not in his crate like he’s supposed to be. Perhaps he is dreaming of meatballs.

Dear Cesar Milan,
OK we bought your book. We know the importance of calm, authoritative attitudes when handling puppies, no matter how cute. We’ve practiced the art of going through the door first and letting the dog follow, of owning our space and of saying “tssst!” to show displeasure when our puppy whines or jumps too much.

So what can we do when the dog isn’t buying it?

We’ve had our new puppy Gus for just two days. It has been an adjustment. On the plus side, he is getting used to the crate. On the minus side, everything we’ve read in the Dog Whisperer book about being a calm and authoritative pack leader has gone out the window. Gus ignores the people who’ve best learned to be authoritative (thanks to your television shows and book) and lavishes all his attention on the weak link: me.

He’s already turning into a picky eater, even though we are using the same puppy chow as his breeder. He has hardly touched his food bowl, despite our cajoling. But he clung to my ankles last night as I stirred a pot of gravy and meatballs, and whimpered and begged while we ate dinner. Could it be that Gus, descended from a prestigious line of German miniature dachshunds, is really Italian?

Perhaps that would explain his attachment to his new “mama.” While my son has projected a more authoritative presence (thanks to you), Gus has me pegged for a softie. He ignores other family members and follows me around from room to room. When I tell him to “stay,” he must interpret it to mean, “within a two-foot radius.” As soon as I sit down he jumps into my lap – even though dachshunds supposedly should limit jumping because they are prone to bad backs — and starts licking my face. He cries pitifully if I put him into his crate so I can get something done. He is a mama’s dog through and through. If this continues, will he turn into Paulie Walnuts?

He certainly is capable of bonding with the guys in the family, at least if I am not around. Last night, ignoring his whimpers, I left to do some food shopping. When I returned Bob and Gus were peacefully curled up on the couch together watching the Red Sox. Gus was nearly asleep, but when he saw me he started wagging his tail furiously and immediately climbed into my lap. I should have told him “tsst” and pushed him away with a clawed hand, like you suggested.

Dog Whisperer, I am making the same mistakes with Gus that I made as a parent of small children. I have a hard time with the tough decisions and the “executive” part of parenting, whether it’s a two-legged or four-legged creature. I let my daughter live on Spaghetti-os for months at a time when it was the only thing she would eat. When my kids had problems going to bed I would sit in the hallway outside their bedrooms with a magazine and reassure them that I wasn’t going away, instead of locking their door as some childhood sleep experts would recommend. Now Gus is sleeping in his crate in our bedroom, something that really should not be happening.

House training has also been challenging at times, just as potty training was. I’ve brought Gus outside many times and waited, but nothing has happened except for a lot of sniffing, pointing, and digging up tuberous plants. I’ve brought him to a nice tree and encouraged him to take a whiz there, even modeled the correct technique. I prayed that no neighbors saw me when I lifted up one arm and one leg and said, “see Gus, this is how it’s done,” while he stared quizzically at me. Only later did I find out from his breeder that a dachshund’s legs are too short to pee like other dogs do; he just lets everything trickle down. He hasn’t pooped outside either, but that doesn’t surprise me since that the “number-two” part of potty training was challenging for my other boys as well. (My youngest pooped in my shoe once after I refused to let him put a diaper back on.)

So, Dog Whisperer, please help. My weiner dog is on his way to becoming an anal-retentive, meatball-loving, authority-resistant, Italian mama’s boy. Please bring over Blizzard, Mr. President and Junior and tell me what to do. I need to get over this problem before I have grandchildren.

It’s D-Day (for Dog) Today!

Gus, our new miniature dachshund puppy. Isn’t he cute???

In about an hour and a half I will be bringing home Augustus, AKA Gus, a very little, very cute miniature long-haired dachshund — our family’s first dog ever.

Gus is a friendly little guy with a face that melted our hearts. (Take a look and see for yourself). We have visited his breeder twice to play with him and help him become familiar with our scent. In the presence of his mother, father and pack-mates he is happy-go-lucky, playful yet laid-back…the perfect temperament. I know he will miss them and we are determined to make him feel loved and safe.

This morning I am humming that old Jackson Browne song, “Ready or Not,” composed when his girlfriend was expecting a baby. I keep thinking of the line, “take a look in my eyes, and tell me brother if you think that I am ready.”

Part of me thinks that we are ready. We’ve read the Dog Whisperer books and
watched dozens of the TV shows. We’ve learned the importance of having calm, assertive presence. We’ve learned about the proper interplay of love and limits, and how we should mirror the behavior of our pet’s mother for best results. We’ve scoped out the best places in the house for our pet’s new hangout, spent about $300 at the pet store on the right supplies and food; put electrical cords out of reach.

Gus with John (right) and John’s friends Carly and Greg

But yet I worry about not being ready. At age 58, I have never had a dog. My husband had several when he was growing up but hasn’t cared for a dog in decades. Growing up we had aquarium fish, including a red-tailed shark that nipped the tails of other fish. Most of our fish died pretty early, except for Andy, an angelfish that hung around for a few years. While my two grown children were small we had Jessie, our cat, who died in 2003. We now have Angel, a guinea pig, who is very low maintenance and happy staying in her cage and munching carrots.

So, with only our 14-year-old at home with us, we have had several years of things being easy. Our youngest child can dress himself, get his own food, go to bed without any pushing on our part. We haven’t changed a diaper, worried about potty accidents or used a baby gate in 11 years. We’ve spent many years helping our children become independent, to think for themselves and care for themselves. Without anybody else to really fret or fuss over, it’s been incredibly easy to just focus on our own needs. Am I ready to devote a lot of time now to putting our new pet’s needs first? To adjust to a new routine whenever we go outside or on errands?

Yesterday we were on a plane flying back from California when the in-flight entertainment included a documentary called “Why We Love our Cats and Dogs.” They interviewed people who said that their pets made them less focused on themselves. Even if they were tired, depressed or angry, the dog’s needs got them out of bed and into the world. Ultimately, that made them happier, better human beings.

I also re-read my brother-in-law Mike’s wonderful essay about his dog Molly, written just after she passed away. It gave me an appreciation for the joy that dogs can bring to our lives. Like us, Mike did not feel ready to take on a dog; it was something his children wanted before he accepted it. But over time he grew to love that dog like a child.

All of us are looking forward to experiencing that overwhelming love with our new pet, Gus. We are prepared for some adjustment problems, and despite being well-versed in Dog Whisperer techniques we know that we’ll be doing a lot of learning together with Gus while we adjust to each other. Yes, brother, I think that I am ready.

Some of My Best Friends Are Republicans

Two years ago I was at a social gathering with a few dozen women, some of them good friends and the rest friendly acquaintances. As the evening wore on and the wine went down the conversation drifted into dangerous waters: politics.

It started with a conversation about a local family that had fallen on hard times, with both wage earners out of work. While we were somberly expressing concern for them and others like them, one acquaintance, normally a bastion of politeness, spat out a comment:

“It’s all because of that o-BAM-a!!!!” The “bam” syllable launched a spray of pino grigio in my face. I wiped away the wine and the incident for the time being.

But it has come back to me over the past month, during a particularly nasty Presidential campaign filled with vitriol on both sides. People are very divided over the future of this country, something that goes beyond the candidates. Here in Massachusetts the forces are rallying for Romney vs. Obama; for Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren. As campaign signs begin to sprout like spring dandelions on front lawns, the challenge until November will be to keep conversation civil, unlike the campaign.

I lean Democratic, and my Republican friends and I care enough for each other to not let politics interfere with personal relationships. At social gatherings we try not to talk politics, especially if we are unsure of the other person’s beliefs.

But every so often we can’t keep a lid on it.

Last month was one of those times. I was chatting on the phone with an old friend, who went from near-poverty to being a successful businesswoman, and she was lamenting that her 26-year-old son was aging out of the family health insurance plan.

“Fucking Obamacare,” she said. When I reminded her that without the health care plan her son would have lost coverage three years ago, she went on a rant and said Obama was ruining the country. I decided not to argue.

Earlier this year I was driving with three other friends and we were lamenting the alarming number of people who didn’t have health care. “They should get off their butts and go get a job,” said my Republican friend. “Well, many of them LOST jobs!,” my Democrat friend chimed in, clearly ready to debate the issue. Since we were in a car I steered the conversation into safer waters before things got uncomfortable.

My Facebook page includes ads for Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s Facebook pages as “pages you might like,” based on my two dozen FB buddies who’ve already “liked” them. One FB friend — a local businessman whom we like very much — “likes” nearly every ugly caricature of the President that you can imagine, including one that denounces him as a “big fat liar.”

How can friends and neighbors who I adore and share a lot in common with feel so differently from me? Why have some of my childhood confidantes “gone the other way,” despite having shared many of the same life experiences and attitudes in the past? What makes some people Republican and the others Democrat?

I lean Democratic, but not all the way. I believe in the safety net but don’t think it should be a hammock that makes people lazy. I hate people who game the system, whether they are Medicare cheats or billionaires who pay little or no taxes. I never want my kids to lack access to affordable health care but know that some tough decisions have to be made about the cost of treatment.

I’m sure many of my Republican friends share similar moderate views. And to be fair, people with more liberal tendencies are also capable of loose talk, especially after a few drinks. My Facebook feed includes plenty of “likes” for disparaging slogans about Romney and Paul. At a recent dinner out a few of us Dems heartily trashed the other side of the aisle, to the chagrin of a dear friend and very classy guy who happened to be the only Republican present. He smiled patiently and didn’t try to argue with a bunch of tipsy Democrats. Sometimes I’ll go on a rant about right-wing wackos and gradually figure out that the person I’m ranting to is a non-wacko Republican, and just politely waiting for me to finish.

While I sometimes wonder what makes them tick, my Republican friends are compassionate, smart, hard working, always there for me, passionate about giving back to the community. Our friendship will survive this awful campaign, no matter who wins. But I’ll be glad when the elephant in the room – and the donkey — are gone. I’m watching what I drink until then.

The Way We Were

This twisted antenna from one of the World Trade Center towers is enshrined in The Newseum in Washington, DC.

Today it’s 11 years. That number 11 will never mean the same thing.

As with Kennedy’s assassination, anyone who was alive on the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news. It was a turning point for our nation’s history and our personal histories.

Does anybody remember the way we were, before that day? The time when the process of flying was more carefree, when we didn’t have to take off our shoes or watch what we say? When the top floor of a skyscraper was the perfect place to survey the swath of a great city? When we could descend into a subway without thinking “what if…?” When the rare news of a bombing somewhere didn’t cause us to jump to the conclusion that the bomber was swarthy and bearded?

During our recent trip to Washington, DC, we visited the Newseum, one of the city’s most intriguing museums, which depicted U.S. history’s most memorable news stories in artifacts and news clips. An entire exhibit was devoted to Sept. 11, and included the twisted needle from one of the twin towers, the destroyed engine from one of the doomed planes, half-incinerated cellphones found in the wreckage, a wall of front pages from Sept. 12, and videos that re-broadcast news from that horrific day. It brought home the terror of watching it live; seeing the second plane come out of the blue and strike the second tower; hearing the news about the planes that struck the Pentagon and crashed in a Pennsylvania field; experiencing the horror of seeing the stately buildings crumble into ashes; and, in the days that followed, seeing photos of the desperate people who plunged to their death instead of staying behind in the inferno.

Today we take the inconveniences of flying in stride. We don’t joke when we wait in line for the baggage screening. We put up with the Patriot Act and the increased scrutiny of our cell phone calls and web site visits. The acute worry of those post-911 days has become a dull resignation: this is the way the rest of the world lives, after all. The New York Times reported this morning that many communities near New York are scaling back their 911 remembrances, especially since the 10-year anniversary passed one year ago. They feel it’s time to move on.

But 11 years after that terrible day, it’s still hard to remember the way we were without feeling some regret.

My son Ryan and I had visited the World Trade Center in May of 2001. We can remember standing on the observation deck, looking at the antenna that beamed signals around the exciting metropolis that lay around our feet. While guards still were on duty in the lobby, we did not feel vulnerable. We did not feel even vaguely uncomfortable in the company of fellow tourists from exotic lands who did not look at all like us or speak English. From the top floor of the tower we visited a souvenir shop, bought mugs imprinted with the towers’ image; and made a short video to email home.

Little did we know, as we stood atop that more carefree world, how little time we had left.

Making a Splash in Midlife

Call my agent! The pool gives us an excuse to take a much-needed break from work.

After 20 summers of wishing and hoping, my husband Bob finally achieved a longtime dream: a backyard swimming pool and spa.

Bob has been talking about a pool since he bought our home 20 years ago, before we were married or even dating. “It has the perfect back yard for a pool!” he announced the first time I visited his new home, when I was living 350 miles away and we were merely friends. Over the next five years we fell in love, married, and his home became our home. We expanded the house to accommodate our blended family. Ten years after that, with college costs largely done, we renovated our totally dysfunctional kitchen. Then came the dining room and other unglamorous but necessary renovations, like a new driveway.

As we got older and grayer and all but our youngest child grew up and moved away, I hoped thought Bob might become practical and re-think the pool. But he continued to talk wistfully about “someday, when we have a pool…” Last spring this intensified into “let’s go out back and figure out where would be a good place for a pool,” and “I think we should go look at pools.”

Can you tell that I went into this pool thing reluctantly? Any financial advice regarding home improvements will tell you that pools are the junk bonds of renovations, with little chance of making back your investment. A pool might make the house hard to sell because people are afraid of the liability. And of course the pool is just the first stage of the financial hemorrhage. The tree clearing, the electrician, the energy-efficient pump, the decking, the fencing, the poolside furniture, the pool toys, the weekly maintenance…all add to the real cost. In short, there is never a good time to cannonball into such an expense.

But most people who’ve taken the plunge will tell you that the decision is emotional rather than practical; otherwise nobody would install one. A pool represents a reward for hard work and a respite from it; a place to welcome friends and neighbors and for children to hang out with buddies; a carrot to lure adult children home for a visit. That last selling point convinced me to sign on the dotted line.

Coffees in hand, we’d stroll the back yard that we never used, and Bob would talk about where he wanted the pool, the deck and a pool house for stashing all the gear. We

Reason #2 to have a pool: Our grown kids now have an incentive to visit.

visited the local pool showroom, talked with family and friends who’ve installed them about the tradeoffs of vinyl versus gunite, and dragged templates for various sizes and shapes of pools around our yard. Finally, settled on a lagoon-shaped pool and wrote the first big check and then the excavators arrived, unearthing boulders resembling mutant baked potatoes.

A few weeks later, after running our hose for four days to fill it, we opened the pool. It delivered on all of its promises the first week. Our grown children visited on John’s 14th birthday and enjoyed the pool and each other, while John played Marco Polo with his friends until they were red-eyed from pool water. On another day we invited our next-door neighbors to come for a swim, and they brought champagne so we could enjoy the spa like rap stars.

Bob has begun arranging his workday so that he can carve out some pool time in early afternoon, when the sun is warmest and the pool water shimmers. Watching my workaholic husband swimming laps, relaxing on a float and enjoying our yard for the first time melted away the last of my reluctance over whether this was the right thing.

The pool has also encouraged us to be a little goofier. We bought a blowup alligator and shark. We started a rule with some of our close friends that our pool must be an otherworldly place where life can be like a Hollywood musical; where guests are encouraged to break into song whenever possible. Last night, fully sober, we sat in the spa with our friends Linda and Bill under a starlit sky and sang the theme songs to “Mr. Ed,” “Petticoat Junction” and other long-lost TV sitcoms.

Next year we’ll put in a patio around the pool and a shed (Bob calls it a “pool house,” and I am trying to promote the “shed” concept) for all the poolside furniture and for guests to change. He now says he wants to carve out a play area near the pool “for little kids.” Whose little kids?, I wondered.

And then it dawned on me what this pool really is: a commitment to staying where we are for a long time, possibly forever. We’ve talked idly in the past about downsizing to a smaller place, perhaps in a really great town where we can walk to everything, once John goes off to college.

But the pool strengthens our ties to this home, and our children’s ties too, so we don’t talk about that any more. Now we know we’ll be here when we really need the handrail to go down the steps into the shallow end, when grandchildren are playing Marco Polo; when the spa is used to soothe arthritic joints instead of as a place to feel like Jay-Z. The pool doesn’t say that we’ve “arrived,” just that we are never ever leaving. And I’m happy with that!