Thursday, March 15, 2012

My Life with Teddy

Read Bonnie Wyler's column in the March 17, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin or listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Podcasts are archived on the Voices from the Library page of the library website. Bonnie Wyler is the Outreach/Literacy Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood.
From the Library - My Life With Teddy by Bonnie Wyler
Teddy came into my life as a 5 ½ pound bundle of fur in August 2008. My previous dog Wink had been gone for almost two years and I was ready for a new canine companion. Because I was approaching senior citizen status and had a full-time job, I told the Keeshond breeder that I wanted the most laid-back puppy in the litter. She assured me that with her 35 years of experience matching puppies with new owners, she would choose the right puppy for me. I knew I loved this breed. Keeshonds are sweet, playful, affectionate and intelligent. The “smiling Dutchman” as he is called, originated in Holland as a barge dog, bred as companion and watchdog for the captains of boats traveling the waterways in the countryside. I knew from previous experience with my Keeshond Wink that another puppy of this breed was what I wanted. Hoping to be well-prepared for the new arrival, I began reading about human-canine communication in a wonderful book by Patricia McConnell called The Other End of the Leash.

Driving home that day in August, I held Teddy on my lap while my friend Susan drove. He sat quietly for the two hour trip, looking up at me with his big brown eyes. We were off to a good start. For the first few days in his new home, he explored his surroundings, running in the yard, sniffing all the new smells, struggling to climb the two steps to my deck and tumbling down again. He was lively and curious, just what I expected from a new puppy. My sister Carol had told me how much I would love rocking him to sleep in the evenings when he was tired out. I looked forward to those peaceful moments.

My first clue that I was dealing with more than the usual puppy exuberance came that first week when my neighbor Sandy stopped by to see Teddy and show me the listing for a house she was looking at. As we sat on the grass studying the printout sheet, Teddy exploded out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning, grabbed the paper and made a mad dash around the yard. By the time we corralled him, the paper was in shreds. We laughed as Teddy jumped in and out of Sandy’s arms, impossible to contain. There was no question he was adorable, but laid-back? His activity level seemed to escalate by the day as he became more familiar and comfortable in his new home. And holding him in the evenings as he fell asleep in my arms? This was not to be. I began to realize I didn’t have the puppy I had bargained for.

That fall, as I struggled to provide the exercise and socialization all puppies need (and Teddy needed even more), my friend came to the rescue. She picked up Teddy one morning a week and brought him to her fenced-in backyard to play with her Jack Russell terrier, Jilly. For hours, the two dogs would run at breakneck speed from one end of the yard to the other. At some point, Jilly would grab Teddy’s collar in her teeth and pin him to the ground, his feet waving in the air. Teddy loved those playtimes. To this day, whenever I say “Jilly,” his ears go up and he races to the backdoor to look for his friend.

By then, I was reading in earnest, looking for any answers I could find to help me cope with my super active puppy. It was a two-pronged approach: knowledge for me and training for Teddy. I enrolled him in a puppy kindergarten class one evening a week. Of the five puppies in attendance, Teddy stood out as having the shortest attention span and greatest difficulty focusing. It was no wonder. He was on serious overload with four other dogs to smell, chase and jump on. After a beginning play period, the trainer worked on basic commands each week, with the canines and their humans practicing under her supervision. By the final session, while everyone watched, each pair attempted to walk in a figure eight, puppy healing on the left side. When it was our turn, the trainer came up to me and said quietly, “Why don’t you and Teddy just try a straight line?” Clearly we were at the bottom of the class.

As fall turned into winter and snow covered the ground, Teddy was ecstatic to be outside with me. As a northern breed, he was well-equipped for the cold weather and loved playing in the snow. He would race around the yard, tethered by a 30-foot lead attached to the deck. Each time he changed direction and hurled past me, I would jump to avoid being tripped by the lead. Unfortunately, my reaction time was no match for his speed. I found myself on the ground, stunned but unhurt, grateful for the soft landing in powdery snow.

I spent many of those winter evenings in the kitchen with Teddy. He was too crazy to keep me company in the living room, and too unhappy if I left him alone in the kitchen. We practiced his ball skills, bouncing and catching, over and over. And I read. A friend had told me about the books of Nicholas Dodman, an animal behaviorist and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. I read Dogs Behaving Badly: an A to Z Guide to Understanding and Curing Behavioral Problems in Dogs, looking for sections that might help with leash biting, jumping, and extreme excitability. Of course, I realized that I was still dealing with the exuberance of puppyhood, but I wanted to be well-informed at the least. I found helpful suggestions in another book as well: The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s seven steps to lifelong health and happiness for your best friend. Who knew that dogs on average need at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, and walking doesn’t count? I was intrigued by the drawing of a dog treadmill, suggested as especially helpful in the winter months.

Fast forward two and a half years to last summer. Teddy was still a challenge for me, but there’s no question we had bonded. There were moments when I was completely exasperated by his excessive energy and excitability, but I loved him and couldn’t imagine my life without him. One beautiful day in August we traveled to Chatham to visit friends, and by chance, went on a boat ride in the bay. As we motored out and then sped through the waves, Teddy sat motionless, staring out at the horizon. I had never seen him so peaceful and content. And then the lightbulb went on. He was a boat dog by nature, his breed serving those many centuries ago as barge dogs in Holland. He was in his element. Back on land, I couldn’t stop thinking about the power of instinct and genetics on behavior, and how I had just seen a totally different side of my dog.

I have found reading about dog behavior and the human-canine relationship fascinating. There are many excellent books on dogs and dog training at the Morrill Memorial Library and in the Minuteman Library Network, including several others by Patricia McConnell and Nicholas Dodman. If you wonder how dogs experience the world, pick up Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. You’ll find ideas for children in 101 Fun Things to do with Your Dog by Alison Smith. For those who knit for their dogs, try looking at Men Who Knit and the Dogs Who Love Them by Annie Modesitt. If you would like to see a photograph of Teddy, you will find him in a READ poster in the Cushing Reading Room.