The View From Here

For Mrs. Shirley Wiley


Last Saturday I suddenly found myself flat on my back on our gravel driveway.   The events leading up to this are all too familiar to my fellow deerhound owners—sometimes even walking with bent knees doesn’t work if you don’t see it coming—“it” in this instance being an 85 pound seven month old deerhound puppy who has absolutely no sense of personal space.  At least not MY personal space.  He came around the corner of the garage at a hard gallop, his six month old borzoi “brother” in hot pursuit.  And quite literally knocked me off my feet.  As I gazed up at the sky, I thought to myself, “What the HELL was I thinking?”  When I went to shower Saturday night, I caught a glimpse of a bruise the size of Texas on my derriere.

When good old Magic died a year ago in January, I was down to only three dogs.  Practically “dogless”—at least for me.  The girls, Queen and Quicksilver, were aging themselves and little Yoda has never really caused any trouble.  There was a time when my household contained (well, contained is hardly the right word, but you know what I mean) three kids, eight horses, five Scottish deerhounds, a toy dog, two cats and a couple of guinea pigs.  I drew the line at birds. They required far too much attention.   My friends say I thrive on chaos.  But that has been true only at home.  Work has always been a quiet haven, a place of order and even relaxation.  It’s all relative.

People have been wondering where I’ve been, and why I haven’t been writing.  The reason is two-fold and can be summed up by two names:  Pibb and Cole. Pibb is the six month old borzoi–his “fancy” show name is Russian and unpronounceable.  Cole is the seven month old Scottish deerhound, registered as Jaraluv Unforgettable.  They are very busy boys, and even under constant supervision the casualty count is rising—a favorite antique trunk…the inlaid veneered Italian cabinet, the coffee table books, the lawn, the television remote control, and various and sundry shredded dog beds.  And judging from past experience, they’ve only just begun.

When I was a senior in high school, I had an English teacher, Mrs. Wiley, who changed my life by teaching me how to paint a picture with words.  When I started this blog, I decided after much deliberation–because I love photographs and photography–that it would be words only and no pictures—that I would force myself to be descriptive enough so that my readers wouldn’t need the photographs to accompany the stories.  So picture this:  two nights ago I left the kitchen/family room area to go to the study to find a calculator so I could run some numbers. I was gone maybe 20 seconds when I heard a loud THUMP!  I ran back into the kitchen to discover the source of the noise—Pibb, standing on his hind legs, had shredded a 4 pound FROZEN and wrapped package of hamburger meat meant for a lasagna. Whole Foods free range grass fed expensive hamburger meat. The sound came when he inadvertently pushed the now gnawed and bloody meat into the sink from the countertop. The lasagna never happened.

Years of experience tell me that this too shall pass. I am working with an excellent trainer. Someday people will admire my elegant and well behaved hounds as we walk across the Plaza.  Children will stop to pet them and I daresay they will both have a few titles to add to their names.  In the meantime, I’m going back to work where it’s quiet and the patients are well behaved and none of them knock me down or steal my dinner.  You’ll be hearing from me more often now!

For Lu

I am good at many things, but I have never been particularly good at training dogs.  Never saw much point in it really, since I love the laid back nature of hounds, deerhounds in particular.  Apart from occasionally eating all of the seatbelts and the bumpers off my Suburban, and removing saplings from the yard (we call this “landscraping”), they mostly lie around the house, preferably on the newly upholstered couch. No retrievers or terriers for me—they require intense supervision and effort.  Any dog that requires me to toss a stick or a ball endlessly is going to be very disappointed because I was always the last to be chosen for the softball team. I have no hand-eye coordination whatsoever.

Despite this, I believe strongly in the training of children, and so when in 1995 we acquired two new deerhound puppies, Timber and Valentine, I decided that it was time for my ten year old daughter Alex to learn to train a dog. I inquired at the veterinarian’s office and the local feed store as to who the best dog trainer was, and I was directed to Lu Meyer’s Obedience Academy.  Since there were two puppies and only one child old enough to handle a dog, I enrolled us both in our first obedience class.

To say that Lu was one “tough cookie” was to make a serious understatement.  She was extremely fit, had ramrod straight posture and a demeanor worth of a Marine Corps drill sergeant.  Fairly early in life she discovered two things– that she did not want to be married to a jerk, and that she was very good at training dogs.  She divorced her husband, raised her son by herself (and did a fine job of it), and started her obedience academy. By the time she got hold of me, my daughter and the deerhound pups, she had 30 years of experience and by golly she was going to show us how it was done.   And show us she did.

I don’t remember anymore which of us had Timber and which of us had Valentine.  I do remember that we worked hard in class, and we worked hard at home.  We did not want to fail in front of Lu, who would dismiss us with a characteristic “sniff” of her nose.  I later learned that this was related to a sinus condition, but at the time that haughty sniff was the penultimate sign of disapproval, sending us head down and home in shame. It seemed we could do nothing right, however by 1996, Valentine had earned her AKC conformation championship, handled in the ring by Lu, the “lowly” obedience trainer who managed to beat several professional handlers and several of the top dogs of the time.  Timber was another story.  Born with a short kinked tail, he was never going to win a conformation title. Deerhounds are not known for their affinity for obedience, but he wanted to please Lu, at least for a while.  She put two legs of an obedience title on him, but the third leg proved elusive.  Timber was smart and bored and tired of the game.  On the third or fourth attempt at that final leg of the Companion Dog title, he calmly turned to her in the ring and lifted his leg on her skirt.  She exited the ring, handed me the leash, and commanded “Neuter this dog IMMEDIATELY!”  And so I did.

Lu was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in 2007.  It never occurred to her not to fight, and she fought hard.  When I was a medical student and resident, this diagnosis was a near immediate death sentence.  But the discovery of Taxol, a chemotherapy drug initially derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and later synthesized, changed all that.  Ovarian cancer became treatable, and Lu responded beautifully to treatment.  She would go to chemotherapy, and come home to hold back to back obedience and agility classes. Her upright posture and her characteristic sniff never changed—she was in command and dogs and humans alike knew it.  Even dog whisperer Cesar Milan would have yielded to her “calm assertive leadership.”  And so did her physicians, giving her second line chemotherapy when she failed Taxol, and third line therapy after that, and in the end, experimental drugs.  That is exactly what she wanted, and she got it.

Over the years, I became a decent hand with a dog in the show ring but decent does not equal grace or fluid movement.  By 2010, with Timber and Val long gone, I had my two Q’s, Queen and Quicksilver, and I did not want to embarrass myself or their breeder by stumbling around the ring.  I called Lu, who was still teaching despite being oxygen dependent.  She was eager to help me.  She had her oxygen in a backpack on her back.  Even though she was visibly short of breath, she was as strict and demanding as ever.  When I gaited a dog down and back, she got exasperated with my hackneyed knee action.  She grabbed the leash out of my hand and took off at a run down her lawn matching Queen stride for stride as she shouted, “THIS IS HOW IT IS DONE!!!”  The following weekend I did not win, but I did take reserve at the Western Regional specialty.  I know that Lu was smiling her approval from her hospital bed.

Today my daughter is a great hand with a dog, thanks to Lu.  As for Lu, she passed in August of 2010, a month after my last lesson, dedicated to the end to her son Victor, her clients and her dogs who were carefully placed with her closest friends. Her personal service dog Whisper, a beautiful Doberman, was by her side at the very end.  When Victor went to make arrangements at the funeral home, he took Whisper with him, since she had never been alone. It was warm that day, and the funeral directors, a young couple, asked Victor to bring the dog inside.  There was an immediate and surprising attraction between the bereft dog, and the couple whose job it was to comfort the bereft, and who were looking for a dog to help families through those most difficult times.  After careful consideration and time, Whisper became theirs.

Today Whisper continues her life as a service dog, doing what Lu trained her to do, but in a capacity that Lu never anticipated.  There could not have been a better outcome for this perfect dog if Lu had orchestrated it herself.  But then again, perhaps she did.