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Why Aggressive Dogs Need Special Masters

Mason and I arrived in Owensboro, Kentucky the day before Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law owns a rental property next to the Ohio River. Since we roll with four dogs and need a lot of space, the cottage is perfect for us. It has a fenced yard with plenty of squirrels. Plus, it’s located downtown, so it has sidewalks, which I’ve learned to appreciate since living in the country. We unpacked the car, leashed the dogs, and strode out the door for our afternoon walk.

We took a left on Maple Street, then a right on First. The temperature was mild for late November. Slivers of clouds lined the sky, and the sun’s filtered light glowed pink and gray. We hiked through English Park, passed the boat ramp, moved next to the muddy banks so the dogs could sniff the water.

Our pack was thrilled, ears cocked, noses slick and twitching with interest. Like any canine, they love walking in different places. And although we had traveled the same route at least 50 times over the past couple of years, we hadn’t been in Owensboro for months.

Twenty minutes into our walk, I saw a gray flash out of the corner of my eye. Mason walked Adriana and Meadow. Floyd, Sara, and I were a few feet behind. I stopped as soon as I saw that flash, paused because an internal alarm started sounding, banging before I understood what was happening. In that moment, that moment before I realized that a seventy-pound dog was charging straight at us, the distance between Mason and I grew to ten feet.

And even after I clearly made out the gray brute descending on us, I didn’t fully comprehend his intent. Because at first that dog, sleek, muscular, and steel gray, looked too graceful to be so angry. Plum Street, three houses, and two fences separated that beast from us. As I watched him effortlessly leap the first fence, then the next, I remember thinking how graceful, how agile he looked.

I called for Mason, but before I could say anything else that dog closed the distance between us and sank his teeth into Floyd’s shoulder. I guess he targeted Floyd because he’s the only male in our pack, but I’ll never really know. The dog locked his massive jaw on Floyd’s body and whipped his head from side to side. If Floyd ever cried out, I never heard him.

Mason reached us in seconds, but it felt like hours. He grabbed the mutt’s ruff and yanked. Luckily, the dog immediately released Floyd. That mutt didn’t like other dogs, but he listened to people. And that was our saving grace.

Moments later, Mason held the dog by his neck, and five people surrounded us, including the dog’s family. Everybody was screaming. The mother was screaming her apologies. Her children were screaming at each other to get “Buddy” back into the house. A neighbor was screaming at the family to get Buddy under “f**king” control. And someone was screaming at an animal control officer over the phone.

Through it all, I was quiet, not out of some sort of dog-whisperer coolness, but because I was frozen from fear. I had been frozen since the second I saw that gray flash. Finally, amidst all that yelling, I snapped out of my daze and knew Floyd needed to get away from all that frantic, angry energy.

I kneeled next to him, made sure there weren’t any visible wounds. Floyd had never fought back. I’m guessing that like me, he had been in a state of shock. Or maybe he was just too old to fight. Poor guy. Ten years old, enjoying an afternoon walk in Owensboro, and he gets beat up for no reason whatsoever. I didn’t see any blood, so while the kids hauled Buddy back to their house, while the mother and neighbors continued cursing at each other, we took Floyd home.

Inside the cottage’s quiet living room, my adrenaline dissipated, and I started shaking. I had to to break up dogfights a few times in my life. Anyone who rescues strays has done the same thing. But, the randomness, the lack of provocation, the sheer size of that dog had really shaken me up.

Floyd looked as upset as I did. I heard his heart pounding through his ribcage as I pulled back his fur and saw two bloody puncture marks. Floyd has three layers of fur. It’s so thick it could be a shag carpet. Thankfully, that shag-like coat saved him from a more serious injury.

Mason and I have walked with dogs all over this country, and we’ve never been the brunt of such an unprovoked, violent attack before. I reminded myself of that fact every time we left the cottage that weekend. In retrospect, when I consider all the possible outcomes of getting attacked by a seventy-pound dog, it was one of the best-case scenarios. Floyd didn’t need stitches, just pain meds and a week of antibiotics. As far as Buddy, I have no idea what happened to him, but I still wonder, even now, two months later.

A dog as aggressive as Buddy needs a very special master. From what I witnessed in the aftermath of that attack, he doesn’t have one. When I was fostering dogs full-time, people often asked what I thought about euthanizing aggressive dogs. Five years later, I still struggle with an answer. Of course I don’t want Buddy euthanized. In fact, I feel an incredible amount of empathy for him. But what if next time Buddy is outside, a child is the one walking a dog past Plum Street? And what if that child’s dog weighs twenty pounds instead of Floyd’s solid fifty? Legally and probably morally, the blame is with the family, but placing blame doesn’t help Buddy.

The next day, Thanksgiving afternoon, after a few extra slices of fried turkey, Floyd walked with us again. We avoided Plum Street, and I’m pretty positive we’ll avoid that street in Owensboro from now on. At first, Floyd moved beside me with his tail tucked against his legs. But after a quarter mile, his tail started rising and rising, until it was swaying full steam again.

Mary Oliver Quote

I’ve been rereading Mary Oliver poems. When I found this line, I squealed:

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them…

Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”

In one line, she pretty much sums up what this blog represents. Animals aren’t own-able because they aren’t possessions. They are as wild as the rain and trees. They are also sentient creatures with complex emotional capabilities. And they should be treated as such. Simple, right? I wish. Speaking of Mary Oliver, have y’all ever read Dog Songs? If not, treat yourself. It’s worth it. I promise.

131 Miles: Liberia to San Jose, Costa Rica

I tried to write about my adventures in Costa Rica in one post. I swear I did. But as I explained here, something extraordinary happened on that trip, and I can’t fit the whole story into 1000 words or less. For those of you just catching up, in December I went on a five-day, 700-mile road-trip across a third-world country. Throughout this month, I’m going to write about each leg of the journey, starting with the first 131 miles. Thanks for reading.

Dec. 7, 131 Miles: Liberia to San Jose

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have angst about my trip to Costa Rica, not stress but a sense of uncertainty. Sure partly, I had the normal anxiety about flying to a foreign country. Did I have enough cash? Would my plane be on time? Would my stuffed bag fit into the overhead? Did I have my passport?

But above all, I was concerned about traveling with women. I know that sounds strange, but I’m not around a lot of girls daily. I live with more dogs than humans and work in an industry with a male to female ratio of five to one. Also, I’m a tomboy who wears cargo shorts instead of yoga pants and board shorts instead of bikini bottoms. I live in my Penn State baseball hat. So, a five-night girl’s trip in a third-world country was a completely new experience for me.

I was traveling with two sisters from North Carolina, Nora Gabriel and Rita Southard. We were headed to the Osa Peninsula, a biodiversity hotspot, to volunteer for a sea turtle conservation group. Nora was the inspiration behind the whole trip. She’s a sea turtle advocate with a mane of black curls and an infectious laugh. I’ve known Nora for years but only met Rita a handful of times. Rita is younger than her sister, thirty something, tall with soft pale skin and brown hair that sways against her waist. Since we were starting our journey in the northern region of Costa Rica, and needed to venture to the southern end, we planned on splitting the first part of our trip into two days.

My first hour in Costa Rica went exactly as planned. I landed in Liberia during the late afternoon. Nora and Rita were waiting for me outside of immigration. We were spending the night in San Jose, 131 miles away, and taking a shuttle van to our hotel. Between the three of us, we knew a few phrases in Spanish, but none of us could have a conversation in it, and our driver didn’t speak a word of English. On the curb outside the airport, Nora pointed out the address of our hotel on her phone. He nodded, and that nod was the only assurance we had that he knew our destination.

About thirty minutes into our ride, my stomach started feeling weak. I’m prone to motion sickness, so in retrospect I should have sat in the front seat. But I didn’t. I sat in the very back because up until I got in that van, my stomach gave no indication it was upset.

Costa Rica doesn’t have many roads, so traveling takes a lot longer than it does at home. If we were driving 131 miles from one major city to another in the Southern United States, it would take two hours. In Costa Rica, it takes double that time. The two-lane roads were paved but winding, weaving back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes, we drove behind public buses or tractors pulling hay, and we moved at a snail’s pace. Sometimes, the road cleared and the driver would pound on the gas for a few manic kilometers before slamming on the brakes. The van had seen better days, faded red interior, chipped paint, windows that didn’t roll down. Plus, it didn’t have any seatbelts, so every time the driver slammed on the brakes, we lurched forward.

About an hour into the trip, my stomach was turning like a carousel. About three hours into the ride, it was spinning. Through sheer willpower, I was able to control it because I wasn’t going to be that girl, the one who causes problems, the one who shows weakness hours into a rugged five-day trip. Unfortunately, my stomach didn’t care about my reputation.

I said, “I’m going to puke.”

Nora and Rita looked at me, then at the driver, then at each other. At the same exact second, we realized nobody knew enough Spanish to ask him to pull over. Nobody knew how to tell him I was going to be sick. And that if he didn’t pull over, it was going to happen all over the van’s floor. It’s an odd feeling not being able to communicate at the height of an emergency. Granted, I had played around on language apps for the past year, but I never took learning Spanish seriously, not really. And I never regretted my apathy more than at that moment.

Since I get motion sickness and travel a lot, I’ve developed a habit. Consciously or not, I identify a puke bag the moment I get on any plane, subway, bus, or shuttle van. Luckily, I had packed a few Ziploc bags in my backpack. I don’t remember thinking about those bags beforehand, but when my stomach rose into my throat, and then into my mouth, I dug for those bags like a dog hunting a mole. As the orange haze of San Jose, the biggest city in Costa Rica, glowed through the van’s windows, I puked into a Ziploc bag, not once but twice.

After my retching concluded, I was embarrassed and humbled. I had been worried about traveling with girls, and I was the one who couldn’t hang. But if Nora and Rita felt that way, they never let it show. Instead, Nora handed me a wet wipe, offered water, medicine. Rita shrugged off my apology. “Please,” she said in a nonchalant way, as though she was totally accustomed to people puking into plastic bags, as though it was no big deal.

Now, almost six week later, I wish I could remember more about my first 131 miles in Costa Rica. But, in retrospect I only learned two things. First, I need to work on my Spanish, no more excuses. Secondly, I learned something about Nora and Rita. Nora’s nurturing and Rita’s feigned indifference had been the perfect remedies for my embarrassment in that van. Within minutes, they had made me feel okay again. That was the first but not the last time I realized that traveling with women, particularly these two women, was going to be a special experience.

Three Girls and a 700-Mile Road-Trip across Costa Rica

Before I left for Costa Rica, I had every intention of coming home and writing a story about my grueling but rewarding volunteer work for LAST, a sea turtle conservation group. But sometimes, the story we expect isn’t always the one we get. And this time, I was way off the mark. Let me be clear, both grueling and rewarding volunteer work was involved in my adventure, and I’ll touch on that. But, a tale focused only on sea turtles in Costa Rica isn’t the one that’s been brewing. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about three gringas who traveled to a third-world country and had the adventure of a lifetime. Let’s start with a teaser.

Three gringas and a 700-mile road-trip across Costa Rica

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-December, I met two sisters Honora Gabriel and Rita Southard at the Liberia airport. From there, we road-tripped for five days and 709 miles along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Here are just a few of our experiences: we hiked seven miles in the jungle along the Golfo Dulce, planted mangrove seeds with our hands, crossed an estuary where crocodiles swim, and measured a hawksbill’s shell. On the Osa Peninsula, we slept in concrete cabins with cockroaches, cold showers, and no air conditioning. In Quepos, we heard the howler monkeys’ husky roars before we saw some a day later in Tamarindo. We also saw macaws, toucans, parrots, a sleeping sloth, iguanas, and white-faced capuchin monkeys. We ate rice and beans five times in two days and an empanada at a roadside soda. On snaking, two-lane roads, sometimes in the rain, we passed men cutting brush with machetes, mule-drawn carriages, and people of all ages and genders riding street-legal dirt bikes with one or maybe five passengers.

There were times on that 700-mile trip when we squealed like ecstatic teenage girls. But, there were also times when we were forced to step outside our comfort zones, physically, mentally, and culturally. For me, the remarkable part is that we never melted down or gave up. Not for 700 miles. Not when I threw up in a Ziplock bag, or Nora killed cockroaches, or sand fleas assaulted Rita. Even when an intoxicated tico screamed karaoke at us in Puerto Jiménez, a town straight out of a Wild West movie, we didn’t give up. Looking back, we not only survived that road-trip, but we thrived. Because somewhere along those dusty, winding roads, three women became lifelong friends.

Coming in 2020

Coming soon, I’ll be writing more about our road-trip across Costa Rica. Plus, I’ll share a story about a vicious dog who attacked Floyd over Thanksgiving in Kentucky, and another about CBD oil and our sixteen-year-old cat’s remarkable comeback. This spring we’ll be visiting the Gentle Barn, a farm sanctuary in a neighboring county, and this summer we’re returning to the Puget Sound Goat Rescue to check in on Rosebud, our favorite three-legged goat.

Happy Holidays y’all!

A Prelude to Sea Turtle Adventures in Costa Rica

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the hardest part of loving my freaks is leaving them. And soon, I’ll be leaving them for ten days. There are two things that make being away worth it. One, I’ll be visiting a magical place, a.k.a. the Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica. I’ve heard rumors that creatures like sloths, macaws, and monkeys live in those emerald green forests, and I’m as excited as a twelve year old to see them. I wasn’t able to sleep last night just thinking about it.

Secondly, I’m going for a good cause. The Osa Penisula is one of 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world. A biodiversity hotspot is a place rich in nature but threatened by human development and pollution. Conservation International reports, “Today, species are going extinct at the fastest rate since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.” And sea turtles are quickly become one of these casualties. So, for three days, marine-life advocate Honora Gabriel and I will be volunteering for the Osa Project, a conservation group running a rehabilitation center for sick or injured turtles.

I traveled to Cuba earlier this year to learn about the dog overpopulation problem, and ironically, I’m going to Costa Rica to find out about the withering number of sea turtles. The ocean’s problems have made front-page news on this blog before. Click here for a post about the starfish on the Oregon Coast and here for an interview with a badass lionfish hunter trying to save the Florida Keys.

For me, the ocean means life. If the ocean is dying, then it means that Conservation International is right, and everything else is dying too. Because I love nature so much, and because I’m able, I want to help. I want to witness and write about the Osa Project because if we don’t raise a clatter, then who will?  It’s not like the sea turtles are going to start yelling about the insane amount of plastic littering their home.

I’ll miss my freaks so much that I’ve already devised a way to keep them “with” me. I’m going to drape my beach towel on their dog bed the day before I leave. That way, I’ll smell them every time I dry off. I’m sure I’ll find a few dog hairs too. 🙂

I’m not taking my computer into the jungle, but I will be keeping a diary the old school way. So check back at the end of the month for an update about our sea turtle adventures in Costa Rica.

And as always, thanks so much for reading.

Thankful for My Freaks

When I talk about my dogs with friends or family or even on this blog, I often call them freaks. I mean it with love. We have four dogs in our current pack, and over the years, we’ve lost several others. I’m grateful I met every one of them for a thousand different reasons. But, this Thanksgiving season, I’m going to explain why I call them freaks, and why I’m so thankful for their freakiness.

The dictionary defines the word freak like this, “regarded as strange because of their unusual appearance or behavior.” That pretty much sums up every dog I’ve ever known. Across the board they are unusual in both their looks and their actions.

Let’s start with their appearance. About twice a week, I cut up an apple, grab a book, and take a long bath in coconut oil. Adriana sits outside the tub, patient and attentive, because she knows I’m going to give her the tiniest slice of every bite. She’s so still when she waits that I can observe all of her adorable differences.

She looks different than me in every way, from her four legs to her tail that swishes back and forth every time I hand her an apple. Blond and white fur covers every inch of her skin. And her nose, that super sniffer, constantly moves with an almost imperceptible twitching. She chews the crunchy apple with her maw wide open, white canines flashing, and manages to make chewing look cute.

During these moments, when I get to focus on how different we are, I also like to think about what makes her unlike any other dog. I think about the fact that Adriana, that all mutts, are masterpieces. They are one-of-a-kind creatures impossible to recreate. They are breeds mixed with breeds until each mutt is singular, until each mutt is a freak.

Their weird behavior is another reason I call them freaks. In so many ways, dogs are just like us. Until that moment when they aren’t, until that moment when they do something so strange, we remember they really are another species. Sure, dogs have friends, but they greet them by sticking their noses up their bums. Dogs enjoy good food, but they also eat poop. And sometimes they roll in it. Like us, they fart, burp, and snore, but they do it in public without an ounce of concern for offending anybody. Sniffing their private parts is also fair game. And they have no problem with cleaning out ears or licking toes, anywhere at anytime.

Besides their atrocious manners, there’s something else freaky about their behavior, something not as obvious but much more remarkable. Dogs have the uncanny ability to read our minds, to sniff out our innermost secrets. They hear what we can’t say to anybody else. Sometimes, they even sense those tough feelings we aren’t able to admit to ourselves. In a Pack of Two, Caroline Knapp writes, “Dogs are fantasies that don’t disappoint.” She says they prance into our lives, sniff out our emotional needs, and then fix them. (If you love dog lit, I highly recommend Knapp’s book.)

Knapp’s words ring true time and time again in my life. For instance, I’ve never had children. For a boatload of reasons, a child wouldn’t work for our family. But, I’m still maternal. I still want to feel needed, nurturing, and devoted to another life. And my freaks have always satisfied all of these instincts.

Years ago, we entered our dog Joe Poop in a Nashville kissing contest. When they announced him as the winner, I reacted as thought he scored the game-winning touchdown for a national championship game. I whooped, karate-kicked the air, and fist-bumped Mason until my hand hurt. In that moment, I was 100%  M-O-M. Joe watched me celebrate with a glimmer in his chocolate-brown eyes, as though he expected nothing less, as though he knew what needed to be done. And he did it. In that moment, I felt such an overwhelming sense of pride I wondered if it was normal to love another creature as much as I loved Joe.

So, during this Thanksgiving week, I want to thank all the weird-looking, strange-acting dogs I’ve ever known for all of their freakiness.