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Minimalist Lessons from Your Dog

(Adriana, four years ago)

Want to be a minimalist? Or at least learn about minimalist values? My best advice is to use your dog as a mentor.

People define minimalism in many different ways. The most hardcore define it as owning 100 possessions or less. Even under these admirable guidelines, dogs easily qualify, but this isn’t the kind I’m talking about. For my family, minimalism means finding happiness in simplicity. And simplicity is programmed into a dog’s DNA.

Simplify Your Toys

One summer afternoon a few years ago, I watched Adriana La Cerva investigate the front yard. She had still been a puppy, floppy ears, pink paws, nothing but cuteness. At one point, she found a mammoth sunflower I’d thrown near the tree line. The flower’s head was wider than her front half, the stalk longer than her length, nose to tail.

The sunflower was still alive but wilting after a storm had bent its stem. Adriana didn’t care. She acted as though she’d discovered Escobar’s hidden stash. Clutching that flower in her tiny maw, she wrestled and sprinted and leaped and even flipped ass over teakettle a few times. She was downright giddy, and it was all because of a sunflower.

When she exhausted herself, she pranced through the front door, holding her prize high, so the rest of her pack could admire it. And they did. Colorful balls, braided ropes, and stuffed squeaky toys were scattered across our house, but that flower was the only thing our dogs cared about for the rest of the afternoon. At the time I didn’t understand what I was witnessing, but in retrospect I realize it was a lesson from my dog, a lesson about finding happiness in simplicity.

To this day, Ade feels the same way about sticks, nuts, cornhusks, and pinecones. She’ll discard any manmade toy in an instant for a natural one. In the most obvious way possible, dogs embody minimalism because they don’t care (at all) about material possessions. In fact, I bought every dog bed, collar, leash, and toy that my dogs own. The canine industry makes billions of dollars a year because of people like me, not Adriana. If Ade had her choice, life would be filled with sunflowers and sticks. In her world, nature would always come first.

Simplify Your Experiences

Another minimalist value that dogs have mastered is living in the moment. If my dogs listed their favorite activities, it would look something like this: long walks (rain or shine), car rides with windows down (also rain or shine), napping in warm laundry, sunbathing, running in the woods, swimming in the creek, and long wrestling sessions. Full disclosure: I’ve tried all of them, and none disappoint. Plus, they don’t cost much more than a little gas or electricity.

These experiences share another commonality. They all engage multiple senses, meaning they aren’t passive but visceral activities. Dogs are really good at living in individual moments because each one is an sensory explosion. They don’t only see their surroundings, but they listen to it, taste it, touch it, and of course, smell it. Have you ever seen your dog throw back her head, stick her nose in the air, and take a giant sniff? Have you ever imitated her? Well, I have. Sure, sometimes I get a whiff of manure or something dead, but other times it’s the scent of wild honeysuckle, fresh-cut grass, or an impending thunderstorm.

A few days ago Adriana and I were walking through the historic section of Springfield. I was lost in my mind, mulling over work gossip, my current read, my mother’s mental health, giving my dogs a bath, and a phone bill I needed to pay. Suddenly, Adriana halted, and I was jolted right back to Oak Street.

Following the direction of her snout, I saw three baby chickens rooting in someone’s yard. The peeps were too busy to notice a dog and a human, so they didn’t scatter, but kept working while we kept watching. And we watched those fuzzy yellow babies for a solid five minutes. I knew, even then, that without Adriana, I would have passed those three chicks without ever seeing them. Without Adriana, that walk would have dissolved into every other one. Instead, she made it into a memory.

This happens all the time on our walks. While I’m busy muddling through my human thoughts, my dogs are busy living in the moment. Whenever I do pay attention to them, when I emulate them, all sorts of treasures appear. Besides baby chicks, my dogs have pointed out deer, ducks, herons, beavers, snapping turtles, rabbits, frogs, fish, snakes, hawks, river otters (!) and turkeys.

Sometimes, they point out unsavory things too, like dirty diapers or empty fast food bags. Other times, they tell me necessary information, like a runner is approaching or a stray dog is off leash. The bottom line is whenever I imitate my dogs and engage my senses, I discover something beautiful, surprising, or at the very least interesting.

Simplify Your Emotions

I could write twenty pages about what a dog’s capacity to love can teach us, minimalist or not. Across the board, dog people attest to their animal’s unconditional love. And personally, dogs have cured my broken heart more times than I can count. But, what makes their love a minimalist value is its purity.

Dogs teach us how to love without labels. I’ve never met a creature who cared less about social status or categories than a dog. If they could read, they’d scoff at Thorsten Veblen and his theories about conspicuous consumption. Dogs don’t care if we are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, overweight or skinny, outgoing or reserved, Muslim, Christian, or atheist. They don’t care if our skin is black, brown, or white, or if we are gay, straight, male, female, or any sex in between. A dog’s love is socially uncontaminated. Label free. Simple.

They also know how to make forgiveness simple. Last Tuesday I was tired. I spent all of June and most of July traveling for work. I had cramps and only two days at home before I had to catch another flight. Ade wanted to walk. I could tell because every time I moved towards the door, she followed.

It was a glorious summer evening, and normally, we would walk. We would jump into the Honda and head to town for our two-mile evening stroll. But, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and binge watch British crime dramas. At one point, Ade was staring at me so intently that I could clearly hear her thoughts, “I’ve barely seen you for a month. The least you can do is walk me.” And she was right.

But, my exhaustion won out. I turned on my heating pad, spooned out a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and streamed Acorn TV. Ade shot me one recriminating glance before she jumped on the bed and cuddled close. She forgave me within seconds. She always does. And the most remarkable part is that she does it without holding a grudge. When dogs forgive, they also forget.

Of all the lessons my dogs teach me about minimalism, simplifying my emotions is the hardest one I’m still trying to learn. But I have four great teachers, who love me unconditionally, ugly parts and all. All minimalists have different definitions for their lifestyle. But, at its core, minimalism is the belief that happiness can be found in simplicity. And there is no better example than your dog (s).

Dog Mom AF

Adriana sleeps under the covers. She has since she was a puppy. I’ve never discouraged her because sleeping with dogs is one of the greatest experiences of being a dog mom. When I crawl into bed, I slide her warm body against my stomach and spoon all thirty-nine pounds of her. Almost every night, she gets too hot and ends up somewhere by my feet, but for a couple hours we sleep fur to skin. By far, those hours are the most snug.

This little joy isn’t completely free of risks though. After all, Adriana is a dog who does dog things, like runs through poison ivy. She carries the oils inside on her fur, then transfers them to me. The rash has covered my skin from neck to bellybutton on several occasions. On several others, I found a tick crawling across the quilt. There have also been times when feathers from dead birds ended up between the sheets. Until last week, I thought I’d experienced all the dangers of sleeping with dogs, but I learned an entirely new one.

Late one night, sky still black, Mason and our three other dogs softly snoring all around me, I heard Adriana jump off the bed. She padded down the hallway and slipped out the doggie door. The plastic flap slapped closed behind her. Our dogs have access to our fenced yard 24-7. They don’t use it a lot at night, but it isn’t unheard of either. Somewhere in that zone between sleeping and waking, I deduced that Ade needed to pee, so my dog-mom senses never sounded any warnings.

We live in the middle of the countryside. The forest surrounds us on three sides. A country road runs past the front, and a bush-hogged field sits across the street. Instead of people, our neighbors include owls, fox, opossums, raccoons, turkey buzzards, deer, groundhogs, coyotes, squirrels, frogs, lizards, and rabbits. Occasionally, these critters venture into our yard. Once, a fox slipped through a square in the chain-link fence and stole dog toys. In late autumn, after the leaves fell, we busted him when we saw the impressive stash he had piled outside his hole.

The plastic flap whapping closed woke me again. I must have snoozed while Ade was outside because it seemed like seconds, but the coldness of the sheets proved it had been longer. As she pranced back down the hallway, I heard her collar’s distinctive jingle. She jumped on the bed, tunneled under the covers, and settled next to my knees. Just like I had a few hours earlier, I reached for her, slid her against my chest, and cuddled her body’s warmth. The soft hair on her ears brushed against my chin.

Feeling the tug of a deep, dream-filled sleep, I hugged her tighter and inhaled. I fully expected the fresh scent of dewy grass, but that’s not what I smelled. I smelled poop. It was the remnant of a dream, I told myself, but that stench didn’t support my theory. Inhaling again, I breathed deeper, hoping with all my might I had imagined it. Nope. I hadn’t imagined anything. Adriana was covered in poo.

I flipped on the lights. The pitch-black scat of a groundhog or a fox was smeared across her ruff, ribcage, and flank. She had rolled in it. Hell. She was so filthy it looked like she had frolicked in it. And she was pleased too, thumping her tail twice when we made eye contact. She looked so innocent that if I couldn’t see and smell the poop all over her, I would have called her my little angel.

At 3:35 AM, as Mason was giving Ade a bath and I was stripping sheets, I wondered if sleeping with dogs was the best idea. But seconds after that thought formed, another one smashed it into oblivion. It doesn’t matter if my dog rolls in poop or carries poison ivy and ticks inside the house. For me, sleeping with Adriana is worth all of the dangers. And that’s how I know I’m dog mom AF.

An Unlikely Pair

Boo and Ade sit next to the fence with their backs facing the house. They sit side-by-side like mirror images, ears up, shoulders straight, resting on their bums. They are an unlikely pair. Boo is a fifteen-year-old black cat and Adriana is a five-year-old white dog. Together, they smash every stereotype and cliché I’ve ever heard about the rocky relationship between cats and dogs. They’re watching something through the chainlink fence, something I can’t see. But I trust it’s there, and I trust they’ll kill it.

I also trust in the evening when I go to the basement, I’ll find their trophy. Over the past few weeks, they’ve left me lizards, mice, moles, birds, and chipmunks. They leave these dead things as presents, right in front of the stairs so that I can’t possibly miss them. Occasionally, they give me organs or limbs, such as a furry tail or a liver, perfectly intact but grotesquely separated from its owner. I always feel so conflicted. Deep down inside I am touched because I know this is their version of a thank you card, yet at the same time I have to choke back gags.

Boo and Adriana weren’t always so close. During Ade’s first four years, Boo didn’t waste his time on her. For one thing, their personalities were vastly different. Boo is the epitome of cool; he’s black and sleek with ultra-smooth mannerisms. On the other hand, until about six months ago, Adriana still acted like a perpetual goofball who ransacked rooms within minutes and didn’t understand personal space. She’s matured a lot recently, and he noticed.

Boo’s brothers were another reason he wasn’t always close with Adriana. Last spring, three black cats lived at the Farnival. They were inseparable, but now, Boo is the only one left. Goo died of old age in early summer, and Fuzz simply disappeared during autumn, when the leaves were just starting to fall from the trees. The last time I saw Fuzz he was in a forest drenched in yellow. For a long time, I hoped he’d return, even had dreams of him showing up at the tree line as quietly as he left. Eventually, I had to let go.

It took Boo two weeks to let go of Fuzz. I’ve never seen an animal so clearly grieve for another before. We’ve lost several elder pack members over the years, but the remaining dogs always acted with more curiosity than sadness. Even when Goo died, Boo seemed to confront it with the same grace as most animals confront death. He simply moved on. But when Fuzz disappeared, he acted completely different.

Through my office window, I’d watch his thin silhouette jog to the bottom of the yard. Then he’d spend thirty minutes pacing back and forth across our fenced half-acre, calling and calling for Fuzz. Boo cried several times a day for fourteen days straight. His grief broke my heart, and we considered…considered adopting another cat. But then, Boo discovered Adriana, and he stopped crying for a brother who never showed up.

I first noticed Boo and Ade’s blossoming relationship when I caught them napping on the same dog bed. In the beginning, they acted tentative towards each other and occupied opposite ends. Boo mostly pretended like Ade didn’t exist, while Ade glanced sideways every few seconds, as though any minute he might break out his razor-sharp claws. It’s happened before. The dogs have scars to prove it. But as they began to trust each other, they moved from opposing ends to the center.

Now, Boo naps sprawled over Adriana’s ribcage or crawled into a noodle against her stomach. Now, he allows her to clean his ears, and Ade lets him nuzzle her snout. On occasion, when they nap, some sound startles Adriana. She’ll jump up and send Boo flying in the air. He lands with grace and an indignant meow. But on cold winter days or rainy spring afternoons, they sleep next to each other for hours.

At some point, Boo started looking for Adriana during the middle of the night. A few nights a week, after his midnight haunts, he creeps through the doggie door, then pitter-patters down the hallway. In the bedroom doorway, he meows for Adriana. I don’t know how she answers, because she’s under the covers and doesn’t make a sound. But, when he determines she’s there, he tunnels underneath the sheets until he finds her. Ade spends a few minutes sniffing him, and he spends another minute cleaning her fur. Then, they settle around each other in a shape that reminds me of the traditional yin-yang symbol, white spooned against black. We all sleep cocooned together until dawn.

Ade outweighs Boo by thirty pounds, but in their hunting poses at the edge of the spring-bright grass, he looks like her shadow. I realized their relationship had reached next-level status when I first saw them hunting together, a recent but now frequent activity. It’s, by far, the most conclusive evidence that they’ve moved beyond sharing body heat, beyond coexisting in the same space. Now, they are choosing to spend time with each other outside of the house. Despite all their differences and all the stereotypes, these two animals are friends.

Is Ade becoming more cat or is Boo becoming more dog? If I had to guess it’d be the former. Ade is as insecure as he is confident. Besides, she’s probably in awe of his athletic efficiency, especially at killing things. And he must, in his own aloof feline way, be proud of her patience and size. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, their relationship is on equal ground, maybe they accept each other because of their differences.

That evening I walk down the basement steps and in the center of the landing is a frog without a leg, a thank you card from an unlikely pair.

The Aftermath

DSC_0051(Adriana)

I’m worried about Adriana. My independent little soul is depressed. Bee’s attack shook her up pretty bad. It’s breaking my heart to see her so down. She won’t play at all, particularly with Bee. Every time Bee tries playing, Ade hunkers under whatever is closest. Last night, tired of watching her pout, we took her to Dairy Queen for a pup cup, then for a slow stroll where I let her sniff whatever she wanted. I’m really, really trying to stay mindful of my behavior at home and act like nothing has changed. I don’t want Adriana to suffer long-term fears over Bee’s attack. I also don’t want her being afraid in her own house, which makes me wonder if Bee should continue living at the Farnival. Am I risking my animal’s safety by letting Bee stay here?

But what about Bee? She has nowhere to go. I spent a long time on the phone yesterday. First I talked to ICHBA’s head honcho Donna. Donna and I both agreed that euthanizing her has to be on the table. Donna said, “How can we adopt her out knowing about this?” And she’s right. Then, I talked to Bee’s first foster mom Miss Judy. Miss Judy said Bee had several aggressive incidents when she stayed at her house. The worst was when Bee attacked her other foster dog Duke. Unlike Ade, Duke has backbone, and it turned into a brawl. Judy is a small woman, about five-feet tall. She wasn’t strong enough to break up the fighting dogs. She had no option besides helplessly standing by and letting them go at it. Luckily, Duke outweighs Bee by at least twenty pounds, and he pinned her down. Judy also thinks euthanizing Bee is a responsible decision. Judy kept repeating, “Melissa, we can’t save them all.”

But then, I look at Bee, and I can’t even imagine going through with it. 99% of the time she’s just a high-energy dog, which means 1% equals a death sentence? Is euthanizing her the only responsible decision? I’m really struggling with this one. What happened to the good old days, when my biggest problem was Shady Shae pooping on the couch? Sometimes this dog rescue business straight-up sucks.

Let’s Talk About Aggressive Dogs and E-collars

Bee chair

We finally broke down and put an e-collar aka shock collar on Bee last night. We’ve witnessed aggressive behavior on several occasions, but we were easily able to correct her. Her outburst yesterday was way over the top. Frankly, yesterday’s behavior qualifies her as a borderline red zone dog because it was dangerous.

Mason and I were sitting on the deck, enjoying the pleasant temperatures of a late summer evening. As usual, Meadow, Adriana, and Bee were throwing down in the mosh pit. Occasionally, we’d glance at the dogs playing, but mostly we were enjoying the sounds of the numerous birds chattering back and forth, the cicada’s underlying buzz.

Adriana’s frightened screeching broke through our peaceful evening like a car alarm. From my chair, I saw Bee on top of Ade. I don’t know what started it, but Bee clamped onto her neck and whipped Ade’s head back and forth. Our deck sits at the top of the yard, about fourteen feet off the ground. Bee and Ade were fifty yards away. It took Mason fifteen seconds to get off the deck and down to the yard. The whole time Ade’s screaming got louder and louder. Those fifteen seconds felt like a hundred years, every second ticking like a decade.

Finally, he grabbed Bee, wrenched her off Ade. Adriana bolted for the rusting swing set, taking cover under the sliding board. The second Mason released Bee, she shot at Ade, clenched onto her ruff and shook her like a ragdoll. Some trigger had gone off in Bee and she wasn’t stopping until she inflicted pain. Bee outweighs Ade by twenty pounds. And Ade isn’t a fighter. She assumed the same submissive pose wolves have assumed for hundreds of years, crouching down on her back. But Bee wouldn’t stop. Ade’s weakness only infuriated her. She just kept attacking.

By the time Mason got Ade in his arms, I was in the yard, my sight zeroed on Bee, who circled Mason and Ade. I tried grabbing her, but Bee is way faster and easily skirted my reach. Even with Ade in Mason’s arms, Bee wasn’t done. The moment she lunged at Ade, I got a hold of her and threw her down, pinning her against the ground. I’m not a strong woman, but adrenaline is like a power surge, and someone was hurting my girl. Bee instantly submitted.

As soon as we got everybody inside and calmed down, Mason dusted off the e- collar and strapped it on Bee. I’m thrilled to report that Ade is fine. Her neck was pretty bloody last night, but the wound isn’t nearly as bad as it initially looked. She’s been avoiding Bee, but who could blame her? As far as Bee is concerned, I’m worried about her future. Who is going to want a dog with that kind of trigger? Who is going to be responsible enough to handle a dog like her? Ninety percent of rescue agencies in the United States won’t accept a dog with aggression issues. In the worst cases, euthanizing them is the only option.

I’m trying to remain hopeful about the e-collar. I keep thinking about Todd Langston’s advice. He says e-collars can produce amazing results, even with the toughest dogs. Let’s hope he’s right because I don’t even want to think about the alternative.