Saturday, February 21, 2009

See Spot Run - A Dog Story

Lessons learned the only way they can be in the school of hard knocks.

Had a bad Sunday last weekend. In this moment of self-absorption, and encouraged by Mad Mike, I thought I would share.

I have already introduced my Doberwoman, Ballou, who is named after the outlaw character Cat Ballou Jane Fonda played in the 60's movie of the same name. It's appropriate - sort of - because Ballou is a 'blue' Doberman, not quite the stereotypical black and tan. Recent experiences may make it necessary for me to change her name to Balloustic Missile.

Ballou's age we think is about 13 months. Trophy Wife gave her to me us last June for my birthday. We must have thinking that, approaching our 40th anniversary, we needed something new, something young, something un-borrowed and something blue. Whatever. Ballou is now our 3rd Unit, which is our code reference when we don't want her to know we're talking about her. She's a keeper - as long as I am ambulant anyway.

I have always maintained that small dogs are not safe for seniors as they are quite capable of inadvertently tripping old coots like myself. (What killed my mother.) Plus, I know Dobies. I am a Dobie whisperer. By liberating Ballou from Dobie Rescue, she became our fourth Dobie, and as predicted, she rescued us (right back) from boredom. But Ballou is the first Dobie we acquired without seeing her develop from puppy infancy. There have been a number of surprises, consequently.

Among other things, Ballou is a sport. Make that a body-contact sport. Once in her first week with us, I was clipping Roses in the back yard so as to surprise Trophy Wife. As I was stepping carefully among the rose bushes, I suddenly felt my left ankle lifted well above its normal trajectory for such tasks. In a nano-second I was airborne. As a matter of fact, there was enough 'hang time' for me to cry out, "Oh-Shit," before landing on my back Trophy Wife rushed out to see what had provoked my outburst to find me prone among the large rocks in the rose garden. Ballou appeared - to her - guiltily aware of her misdeed. That was the first and last time Ballou has decked me one my home field.

You can't own large dogs and not daily run them off leash, in my opinion. Such has been my practice. The younger they are the more essential it is for them to run their asses off and get the shit knocked out of them by other dogs. Otherwise, your home will suffer.

One of the reasons I retired here is that the area has a number of large and varied parks where unleashed dogs are permitted. After considerable hesitancy and trepidation born from her constant barking and snarling at pedestrian passers-by in her first weeks with us, I introduced Ballou to the bark parks. To my great relief and surprise this athletic acrobat turned out not to be vicious or malicious when unleashed.

However, Ballou is extremely sadistic. Her off-leash tactic is to search out likely canine victims, close to her size and age, give them the most snarky look she can muster, and provoke them into chase. What then happens is that the other dog(s) pursuit totally wears them out. She maintains at least a length and a half ahead of them. Like any guerilla fighter in broken ground which she knows better than the back of my hand, she can pull a complete disappearance off when circumstances warrant it. When rarely cornered, Ballou can easily vault over her pursuing posse. She owns the terrain of Douglas preserve as if it were her own back yard. Seeming impenetrable thickets created by fallen trees are encircled by cinder tracks produced by these pursuits. Other dog owners know Ballou as the fastest dog in the park, nicknamed the Blue Streak.

However, there's a dark side of all of this.

One Sunday afternoon last year I was approaching a point in the park where the trail narrows. Off to the right, there's a 100 yard perpendicular drop off to the Pacific Ocean. The trail is constricted by three or four sturdy saplings. My technique is usually to grab on to one of these as I progress the ten yards or so of vertigo.

Well, on this afternoon in question, I approached this bottleneck knowing that some dog or another was pursuing Ballou. I heard from behind the rapido drum beat of stampeding hounds. Seeing a sturdy trunk within grasp slightly to my front and to the left, I stepped quickly up to get behind it. I never made it.

Instead I was hoisted in the air much more violently and painfully than in my rose garden experience. Trophy Wife was a hundred yards behind me and she will tell you I appeared to be in 'levitation'. Happily, I surprised both of us by getting to my feet before she reached me. The learning, I concluded, was that there was no wisdom in getting close to an obstacle when Ballou was in flight, because she would always try to split the difference.

But I had more to learn. Part of Ballou's snarky behavior is to squat down on her belly in a predatory crouch, ready to spring. The learning in this scenario is that she is more than likely to spring off to the left or right than forward. This was driven home to me on another Sunday when I was walking beside her on the way out of the park, preparing to re-attach her leash. Ballou crouched with inches of my left ankle. After provoking the 'other dog', she hit me in my left knee from the left side without warning. There was no opportunity to flex my legs or 'unlock' my knees.

I thought I was finished. I had replaced both knees two years ago and thoughts of having to drive back to L.A. Centinella for reparative surgery flashed through my mind. I was stiff the next morning but quickly recovered that week. The learning was never to re-leash Ballou in the proximity of other unleashed dogs.

Then, last Sunday, I was struck by a Balloustic Missile.

Beneath our regular walk on the Douglas preserve is Hendry's Beach. (Reader Utah Savage knows this beach.) I try to take Ballou there at least once a weekend when we have a little more time. She loves the beach scene with the easy running, splashing other dogs it affords. This beach is narrow, bounded on the inland side by the cliffs of the Douglas Preserve alluded to above. It is an obstacle-strewn beach with huge boulders and fallen trees. At high tide, it is extremely narrow. As I recall, the tide was out last Sunday. A quarter of the way through our hour walk I looked up. Ballou was racing towards me, pursued by a Ridgeback. To my immediate right was a low boulder, embedded in the sand like half of a dinosaur egg. It was no more than two feet high. There was no time to move. I bent both knees and braced for whatever, expecting Ballou to easily vault to granite egg. (The day before in the Preserve above the cliffs, similarly pursued, Ballou cleared a 4-foot snow fence with 10 inches to spare and enough hang time to sink an underhanded lay-up.) This Sunday, however, Ballou changed course away from the egg-shaped boulder and crashed into my left knee. And I mean crashed. Imagine being struck by a fur-covered object of 70 pounds traveling 10-15 miles an hour. I was down in the surf line, writhing in pain. People rushed to my assistance.

The next morning and for days after I needed a cane just to get up, walk to the car, walk from the car to the office and back. I returned with Ballou to the Preserve on Tuesday, but with a cane. On Wednesday morning, we were leaving the park with Ballou back on leash. Another large dog owner came through the gate, looked this old fart with a cane in one hand and a young, leashed Doberwoman in the other, and elected to unleash her own monster. The result unfolded more quickly than it takes the reader to finish this sentence. Ballou struck me again in the same left knee - from the side - and I was on my back, writhing in the mud.

I have no alternative than to walk an hour or so daily with my Balloustic Missile. Any large dog requires that exercise. And I do, too. I now carry my cane but not for support. For protection. This morning's walk found Ballou in full flight in my direction. I jammed my cane hard into the ground in front of my left knee and leaned hard into it. The cane received a glancing blow! My knee survived unscathed.

Is that the learning? Maybe.

Maybe I needs to be looking to replace this varnished stick with a stainless steel cane. A cattle prod? Umbrella with a hair trigger? Ski poles? Until I find a solution, I just gotta stay on my feet.

And off Hendry's Beach.