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First Tomato a Total Bust, but Ice-Licking Dog Makes Up For It

Here's a nice specimen; mine was rotten.

Yesterday I picked my First Tomato, which was nice and red but lying on the ground, so I knew it wouldn’t be any good. Tomatoes need to hang from the vine or they rot. I took it inside because I wanted to see what happened to it.

It’s a law here in Indiana that any thief who picks your First Tomato may be cheerfully shot with total impunity. But even the Tomato Gang wasn’t interested in this one.

You don’t think there’s a Tomato Gang? You don’t live in Indiana. We all belong to the Tomato Gang (and we’re thieves).

I brought it inside and sliced into it. The bottom half was rotten because it lay on the ground. But the top wasn’t much better, very woody, not juicy at all. I put it in the compost box.

Let’s get this clear, shall we? Tomatoes are supposed to be juicy, and I couldn’t care less if this does not meet the needs of McDonald’s, Burger King and Hardee’s. They don’t like juicy tomatoes, which drip on your skirt while you’re driving up I-65.

Those things are tasteless, which fast food specializes in. Don’t eat in your gol-dang car, hokay? That skirt never did much for you anyway.

Tomatoes, like oranges, exist for the juice. That’s where the flavor is. Never, ever buy a tomato hybrid designed for fast food chains.

Would you want to eat a dry orange that was all meat and no juice? Then why would you design a tomato that way?

It’s not my fault that people like to put tomatoes on their burgers and not oranges. (They’re both very rich in Vitamin C.) If you’re going to eat a burger Be Prepared. It’s called a napkin; you can do it.

My First Tomato was a total bust. I wasn’t that sad, I’ve got a lot more ‘maters on the way; the timing (practically the 4th of July) vindicates my decision to plant tomatoes early and wait to see if the frost got them, which it didn’t. Replacement vines would only have cost a buck or two, so I learned something this year. My tomatoes look like a rainforest, while my next door neighbor’s got these spindly pathetic things.

I’d have eaten part of the First Tomato if it hadn’t been so woody, but I threw it all away. (“Woody” is when the green part of the vine extends down into the flesh. It’s inedible, the whole thing is deformed.)

It was a hot day, and once I cut into it and saw it was worthless, I began to be concerned about my dog. Luke spends most of his time outside on a 30-foot lead, and it’s been hot here, our first hot dry spell of the season. He so likes the sunshine that I worry about how he eats and drinks. When we wake up in the morning he’s never interested in breakfast, he only wants outside, and it’s not because he’s desperate to pee; he takes forever to do that. What he wants is the sun, so I pour out food and water as he clamors to go outdoors. I take him out, and bring him back later, and sometimes he eats or drinks like I want him to. Sometimes he doesn’t, he just wants back outside.

I’ve tried taking his chow-and-water dish outdoors so he can feed when he wants to, but ants got into it and that was a mistake. In the morning I offer him food and water, but he’s not interested, so we go outside and play, and later I bring him back in case he’s hungry or thirsty. Then clamor clamor clamor, jump and turn in circles, “Outside!” Okay, dude.

But it was hot out, and I’d already given him a second chance at the doggy dish, which he rejected, and I didn’t know what to do. I took him an ice cube.

He loved it.

I held it in my hand and he lick-lick-licked; when he got tired I rubbed it on his belly. But then he wanted to lick it again, so we did that. He paused and stood up, and I rubbed it on his back. He thought that was great. Then he licked it again; in a minute it was just a nub. I finally dropped it and he licked it on the grass until it disappeared.

It’s an amazing thing to have another creature eat out of your hand. He totally charms you, while you feel strong and protective and goofy.

Since he likes being out all day, but I can’t trust him to stay in our yard, I check on him all the time; he can’t say if he’s hungry or thirsty, I have to interpret the signs. I wish I were better at doggie-speak, but maybe we’re doing okay.

Luke ate an ice cube; highlight of my day.++

Luke, ice cube-licker. Prettyboy, little wuss, total favorite.

Birthday Week Begins!

The clock is just past midnight as I begin this; it’s Monday, May 17. Today would have been my late brother Steve’s 62nd birthday.

Mine is tomorrow. Either he was born early or (more likely) I was born late; we were anniversary babies. I will be 59, gasp cough cough.

He and I went 20 years without speaking after I came out; he didn’t want a Gay brother. I was never allowed to see his kids, in case I would touch them and give them AIDS. (I’m HIV-negative, but that doesn’t matter to the paranoid. If a person could get HIV from touching, the whole world would have long since been infected.) He was a jerk; then slowly, he began to change.

Our mother got sick with cancer in 1994. He loved his mother, and the three of us debated over who would take care of her. He invited her to come and live with him in southern Indiana; but she wanted to die at home in West Lafayette, and I was an experienced caregiver, available to move in with her, so that’s what happened.

She didn’t last very long; January 9, 1995. Steve and I didn’t see that much of each other during her illness, but he did come north to spell me for a weekend so I could go to Indianapolis to watch Purdue men’s and women’s basketball. Her illness was hard on me, she was demanding, so I was very grateful he gave me that weekend. I know he took the best possible care of her.

After she died I stayed in her house, and he often invited me down south to his house for a visit. We became very close friends, although he never stopped giving me a hard time for being Gay.

On every other topic we were brothers. I miss him very much.

Because of the timing of our birthdays, we quickly developed a shared ritual we called Birthday Week; I commend it to everyone. Mom used to say, “My birthday is My Day.” Steve and I decided, why not a whole week!

Episcopalians and Catholics observe octaves of major feast days, an 8-day celebration. Birthday Week fit right into the calendar. Sometimes we’d start a few days before, sometimes a few days after, this was a moveable feast, whatever our whims decided, eight freakin’ days.

I loved him; he loved me. He was a very fine man with a prejudice. And he was a bit sadistic with it, but I always fought back.

He so loved his mother that he honored me for taking care of her, and that mattered more than our turnons.

I relied on him for certain kinds of advice; I have no mechanical ability whatsoever, while he always knew what to do when the water heater stops putting out, or the car won’t start, or moles invade the yard.

I miss him terribly, but I’m very grateful that we were close those last few years. He died shortly after the millennium turned.

But I still have the legacy of Birthday Week, and I’m going to take advantage of it. I’ve been waiting for this; Birthday Week starts now. I imagine him smiling up in heaven, right next to Mom.

Sunday I drove to West Lafayette and bought more landscape lumber, 8-foot-long border planks for my Proper Garden; I have reclaimed a wasteland in my back yard and made it beautiful. I’ve planted tomatoes, peppers, geraniums, cabbage and broccoli, and put in a strawberry patch; tossed out gravel, replaced it with topsoil, weeded and weeded and weeded, dug and raked till my back hurt, killed off these terrible trees that grow 10 feet tall in six weeks, sawed off the tree stumps, thoroughly knocked myself out. It’s taken a couple of years, but now I have a real garden, planted and marked off. The area’s still a little rough, the ground is uneven, but within those 8-foot planks, there’s a garden. Will the muskmelon seeds I dried and saved from last year do anything? I don’t know, but it will be exciting to find out.

Steve was a big fan of Vincennes muskmelons. In the gravel walkway on the north edge of the garden, I’ll plant gladiolus bulbs, some of my mother’s favorite flowers.

In the front yard with a northern exposure, Steve’s favorite azaleas are giving way to our brother Dick’s prize peonies. The Indiana state flower, y’know?

My garden is done, and I’m ecstastic. It isn’t even my birthday yet and everything’s done!

I also bought a little garden figurine, a foot-tall angel made in China with green and white mosaic wings, ten or twelve dollars; she now stands under the giant maple in the back yard, Our Lady of the Big Tree once featured in the Chicago Sunday Tribune.

The marigolds are happy, the begonias, three varieties of lilies; pansies, oregano, yuccas, impatiens; the hostas are doing okay, and so far I’ve been able to control the freakin’ ivy and the would-be kudzu. I worry about some gifts, though, that date to my buying this house six years ago; Peter gave me some excellent tulips, but they didn’t produce well this year, and a woman I used to work with at Southlake Mental gave me irises, which aren’t doing well either. I can picture her but I do not remember her name! It’s awful, she was very competent and good with clients, we worked so well together, but now, when irises are blooming all over town, mine aren’t. She deserves better, y’know? She deserves to be remembered by name.

But I’m getting older, and this s— happens, and it’s Birthday Week.

I got a dog last October, name of Luke; he hasn’t figured out flowers yet, and has made it his business to topple every planter in sight. He doesn’t mean to, but he’s a fox terrier, and they jump and run and boom, sorry begonias. And geraniums. And everything else he can accidentally knock over. I keep moving his stake-out chain, but I haven’t yet found the perfect spot where he can do no damage, and “Yowzah, Daddy, Arf Arf Arf! (Oops, bad dog, you don’t gotta tell me, I know.)”

He gets bacon anyway. I tell him that come August, when the tomatoes are ripe, I am eating all the bacon myself, BLTs, no matter how much he jumps and yaps and knocks things over.

It’s Birthday Week; my gardening is done. I have an 8×24 space marked off for flowers and food. I have a gravel walkway; the invasive trees are gone. Our Lady of the Maple happily presides in the shade. Maybe I’ll get a couple of jars of strawberry jam according to my mother’s recipe.

As for my homophobic brother: it was good to find someone who knew me all my life, loved me 90% and hated me just 10. It was mutual, after all, I never let him off the hook; attack me and I fight back.

I planted those azaleas for him, and they did better this year than ever before. Ninety/ten’s pretty good when you think about it. So Birthday Week starts now, on His Day. Mine is Tuesday, Jayne’s graduation party is Saturday, and Sunday is Pentecost, the Church’s Birthday with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I finally have a Proper Garden, and an Angel of the Maple Tree. Life is good.++

It’s Pansy Time!

Today, March 31, is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 83.

This is also Wednesday in Holy Week. Some years her birthday fell on Easter Sunday. (Some years my birthday is the Day of Pentecost.)

But today is also the day I planted tomatoes—far earlier than ever before.

The rule of thumb with tomatoes is that the safest time to plant is after the last possibility of frost has passed. Around here, that’s approximately Mother’s Day, the 2nd Sunday in May.

Pansies can be planted as soon as they appear in stores; they like cold weather. So mine are now in. I bought yellow ones this year for my planters on the front porch. I usually mix colors but not this year.

I fantasize that tomorrow the mailman will come by and think, “Well, he’s got his pansies in.” I imagine this every year, because I get such a kick out of planting my annual flowers. I want someone to notice them!

The lady across the street has a nice window box. I used to admire and envy it, until I realized she sticks in plastic flowers and calls it a day. No watering that way, I guess.

While I’m excited about the pansies, I’m really psyched about the tomatoes. They’re my favorite food, and nothing tastes better than a homegrown tomato. The ideal way to eat them is out in the garden with a salt shaker, and juice running down your chin.

I may lose this crop; there’s a reason the experts say to wait. When I bought this house six years ago in May and planted my first tomatoes, my friend Mark came down from Chicago to help with a couple of tasks, and told me he’d lost his tomato plants a few days earlier. Frost got them, of course. “What’s up with that?” he asked.

I was so eager to learn how to grow a tomato that I let my mind get spooked by what happened to his. So for the past five years I’ve faithfully waited until all danger was past.

I have now repealed that law, for several reasons. First, the eight plants I stuck in the ground today cost me all of $2.78. If I have to replace them I won’t go bankrupt, so it’s time I got over my anxiety. Second, last year’s experience was not good. We had a cool, wet summer and the tomatoes took forever to ripen; I didn’t get any till August, and mine were earlier than some of my neighbors’.

Third, my pal Peter visited me in May last year, and helped stake up my plants. I felt terrible about it, because I started later than normal; he’s from Amsterdam, and I would so have liked to be able to feed him some of my own produce. God knows he’s heard me rave about my tomatoes this whole time. But there we were, trying to coax along a few forlorn-looking plants that he wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy unless he stayed all summer. He did get to eat some local sweet corn, and marveled that here in the exotic Midwest, we actually eat it off the cob! He probably included this bizarre factoid when he inflicted his Travels in America slide show on his parents once he got home. “What’s next,” they must have wondered, “do they wear grass skirts?”

The bottom line for me is this. As soon as Murphy’s has plants for sale, buy them and stick them in the ground. I may lose a few but so what; God made more. The gardening industry knows when to put plants on sale for a particular market; doubtless Wal-Mart has elaborate data on when to offer what at all ten gazillion stores.

Since I am going to spend every day this spring and summer checking to see if I’ve got a tomato yet, I want my juicies sooner, not later. (I’m not sophisticated enough to do grow-lights in the basement, the way the hardcore tomato people do. And I can’t afford to build a greenhouse off the kitchen.)

It was 78º today in Chicago; we may have hit 80 here, the ideal temperature for planting. Yes, it will get colder, but I’ll keep my eye peeled for frost warnings and buy a newspaper to cover up my crop. It’s worth the risk.

Tomatoes are one of the best foods a person can eat. Here are some nutrition facts from learninginfo.org.

The tomato not only thrills the taste buds and brightens the dinner table, it also helps fight disease.

A review of 72 different studies showed consistently that the more tomatoes and tomato products people eat, the lower their risks of many different kinds of cancer. The secret may lie in lycopene, the chemical that makes tomatoes red, said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the studies he reviewed, 57 showed that the more tomatoes one ate, the lower the risk of cancer. “The evidence for benefit was strongest for cancers of the prostate, lung, and stomach,” he reported.

Processed tomatoes (e.g. canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, ketchup) contain even more lycopene because cooking breaks down cell walls, releasing and concentrating carotenoids. Eating tomatoes with a small amount of fat enables lycopene to be better absorbed.

Even though eight plants is a lot for one person, there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes. I freeze them, I can them, I give them away; I can even sell my surplus back to Murphy’s. I could start my own farmer’s market!

My chives are coming back; I’ve harvested some already. The oregano is growing, too. Last week I planted onion sets as soon as I saw them at the grocery store. (Then I had to contend with my dog Luke, who naturally assumed that where I get to dig, he gets to dig too.)

My tulips, including some from Peter, are about 8 inches high; the crocuses are in bloom. The lilac bush is leafing out and will bloom in May. A few of the irises have sprouted, but they did very badly last year and I may have to replace them. The daylilies have new shoots. So far I can’t see any activity among the hostas, nor anything from the lilies-of-the-valley I planted last fall under the maple tree. But everything is coming along as it should; God, do I love spring.

And I haven’t even mentioned that the Butler Bulldogs are in the Final Four!

Butler's regional championship last week.

You know what I’m going to be doing Saturday, and it’s not thinking religious thoughts. The Easter Vigil begins at 6pm my time, but Butler tips off against Michigan State at 5:07. I’ll be going to church, all right, but not at Good Shepherd. Mass can wait until Sunday when there isn’t any basketball. I mean, first things first.++

Coach Brad Stevens of Butler.

What Do You Feed Your Dog?

You gotta like a name like Skippy

I went to the vet today for my pal Luke and bought a 6-month supply of Frontline and Heartgard (anti-fleas and ticks, anti-heartworm medicines) and a 5-pound bag of Science Diet. Cost about $120, of which $80 was for the flea killer.

That’s a lot of money. It seems disproportionate to me, considering that the inexpensive heartworm med is for something that could actually kill him, while the expensive anti-parasite only prevents something that wouldn’t really hurt him. I have to get used to veterinary bills, I guess. Luke does visit other dogs sometimes, and no, I don’t want fleas in my house.

(When I was in 7th grade my parents closed out their business, moved 13 miles south to this town and bought a house. For some reason they were worried that someone might break in; a crazy thought considering the crime rate was zero, but whatever. So I volunteered to guard the house, which meant sleeping on the floor before the furniture got moved. Little did we know that the house was infested with fleas, which bit my legs all night. So paying $13 a month for flea prevention is probably a great investment.)

But then I saw the bill for five pounds’ worth of Science Diet; $2 a pound. I could feed Luke chicken at retail for less than that; I could feed him pork chops and COTTAGE CHEESE. A little can of peas and carrots, mixed in with his supper, lasts almost a week. What should I do?

I wonder what other puppy parents do; kids are expensive. (And they attract fleas.)

Chances are the vet charges more for Science Diet than other retailers do; I’ll check that out next time I’m at Wal-Mart. I’m lucky really that there’s a vet in town with Science Diet for sale. But still, $2 a pound means the dog’s eating better than I am.

If I were to feed him human food, he still wouldn’t get all the vitamins and minerals he needs. Chicken, peas and carrots will only get him so far. He needs the other stuff too. But still, $2 a pound? Who does he think he is, a Rockefeller?

Is Science Diet that much better than, say, Alpo Dry? They’re both certified by AAFCO, which sets minimum standards for dog food, and I can buy a 17-pound bag of Alpo for ten bucks, the same price as 5 pounds of SciDi. I’m not looking to make him eat the cheap stuff, but $2 a pound seems awfully expensive. I want him to be healthy and happy, but it would be nice if I didn’t go bankrupt feeding him. Alpo costs 60¢ a pound, not $2. How do other dog owners handle this?

If you have a dog, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile here’s our feeding pattern. I give him pellets in the morning, which he doesn’t always eat, and “good stuff” at night; canned dog food usually (he likes Skippy, a cheaper brand, better than Pedigree, which is pricier and looks like crap). I often supplement his supper with human food, which might be scraps of chicken, pork or beef, peas and carrots, rice or COTTAGE CHEESE. He has a clear preference for the good stuff over the pellets, but once he’s had supper and pooped, he gladly chews the pellets he turned his nose up at earlier; crunchies clean his teeth. Every now and then he gets a bone if I’ve got one. I hope, between the vitamin and mineral-enhanced pellets and the protein-rich good stuff, he gets a balanced diet; and it’s a wonderful thing to watch him eat real vegetables and grains. Humans don’t like peas that much, but Luke scarfs them up when they’re mixed with Skippy Bar-B-Q Beef.

Probably I worry too much, but food is important to a dog. Did I mention he loves COTTAGE CHEESE?

I figure it’s a good source of calcium, and it’s cheaper than Science Diet. When I give him some CC, I always make a big show of licking the spoon afterward, just to see him go nuts. When it’s Skippy time, I let him lick the spoon.

He’s an endless font of entertainment, so sweet, so nice, even if he misbehaves at times; now that he’s been here two months and we’ve got toilet training down, I’m giving him more and more free time. He’s learned to run up the tiled kitchen steps instead of always racing around to the carpeted steps in the living room, and I’ve learned to interpret his behavior better. My favorite Luke things? When we’re going downstairs from my bedroom and he leaps down to the landing from the third step; and playing My Paw, where I grab one of his legs and he fights me with pretend-bites. Somehow he likes having my fingers in his mouth.

Now it’s time to walk around outside the house, our mid-evening pee ritual. He’ll try to drag me off to the street, but I won’t go (it’s cold out), so he’ll huddle under the evergreens, then the spruce tree, then the pine tree, before scrambling up the back steps saying, “What took you so long?”

A very good boy he is; a fantastic boy. Cute as the dickens, sweet as pie.++

I finally got a closeup of Luke's face.

A Christmas Eve Baptism for My Little Boy

Luke at home, 10/25/09

I very much believe in baptism. It is one of two sacraments ordained and commanded by Christ. He himself underwent it at the hands of John in the River Jordan. Baptism is how a person is joined to the Church. Some people call it a rite of initiation, for others it means we’re born again; but I’m not sure those words convey its supreme importance. By baptism we become one with Christ; if we’re old enough to talk we make vows to be one with him. If not, those vows are said by adults on our behalf, but the oneness stays the same, whatever our age.

I believe in infant baptism, ideally the 8th day after birth. I believe in all baptisms at any age. I got the water when I was two or three. My Methodist-baptized mother joined the Episcopal Church and had all three of us baptized; Steve was 5, Dick was 7. Mom said Fr. Ferguson paraded us around the church, showing us off as the newest Christians in the world.

I don’t remember it, but she loved it. I still believe the walk down the center aisle, holding the hand of the new initiate, is the right way to baptize a soul. We must have been a sight, three little stairstep boys, holding hands.

A couple of years ago on Christmas Eve I was present for more baptisms in my home parish; new adult converts and their children, as well as a grandson of the parish, who might have been 10 years old. I know his granddad, the former religion beat writer for the local newspaper, a nice man. How thrilling it must have been for him to live to see the baptism of his grandson. It was thrilling for me to be present for the baptism of Byron’s grandson.

Tonight, another Christmas Eve, we have freezing rain, and I can’t make it to church. This bothers me, but the weather was predicted and I have a backup plan for worship. It’s not as soul-feeding as midnight mass, but it will nourish me nonetheless.

This year, I have someone new in my life, a little rat terrier named Luke. He’s an excellent boy. I planned ahead and gave him a great feast (he likes Skippy Premium), so big he couldn’t eat it all. But while he ate, I sat on my kitchen steps and told him about Jesus as best I could. What is it like to recount the story of salvation in your own words? Have you ever done that, with anyone, even a dog who has no idea what Christmas means? All Luke knows is Skippy.

I did okay, with a simple retelling of the birth, life, parents, ministry, miracles, persecution, execution and resurrection of the Lord of Life. Luke kept eating.

When he was done (with chunks of beef and chicken yet remaining), I reached into his water dish and baptized him in the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I hope I didn’t trivialize Christianity, but I want my boy in heaven. He was very patient while I did my little water thing.

He has no sins to repent of, but I want him with me forever. He wasn’t born again; maybe I was, maybe not.

St. Francis blessed the animals, but the truth is they bless us. They’re simple little beings who react on instinct and impulse—but oh my, is he a lover already. Should not he belong in the company of saints?

He let me do this, then went outside in the freezing rain. He doesn’t like the wet and cold, but he likes sniffing every chance he gets.

Back inside, we played a little while, then he went back in his house; all is well, peace on earth. He’s now snuggled up in a Purdue Boilermakers blanket, safe and snug. He has no idea what “baptism” means, but then neither do adult humans.

God said, and people heard him say it, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Merry Christmas, Luke. We’re going to heaven, buddy. We’re going to laugh and play and belly-rub, and there’s an endless supply of Skippy. Miles and miles to run with no one saying you can’t!

O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.++

Luke Escapes! But Terriers Need to Run

Luke in his house, before I learned to close the door for the sake of my dinner guests.

I had a fright the other day; I trusted Luke but he decided to escape. I knew he would sooner or later, but the first time you lose your dog is always traumatic.

I’d let him outside on his 30-foot chain for several minutes, but since this is December and it’s chilly or worse, I don’t want him out there for too long. I went to get him; I thought we had a pattern established, that once he’s on the deck-patio within a few feet of the back door, I could unleash him and he’d bound up the steps to the door. This time he decided to take off.

I chased him around the yard but then he scurried off across the street. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him in the roadway without my protection. I couldn’t possibly catch him as he chased down the boulevard median, green grass and no obstructions; fortunately, no traffic. He was off.

I went back inside and worried. Part of me was rational; I control the food supply and it’s cold out there. The other part of me paced from window to window, hoping to catch a glimpse. I finally decided to relax and wait him out. I’ve worked hard to teach him where home is and I’m pretty sure he knows. But I’ve only had him for two months and we’re still learning to live together.

In a few minutes I tried again and saw him across the street, at a house we often pass on our walks. I went outside to fetch him but he wouldn’t come, no matter how loud I shouted his name and clapped my hands. He took off again west, then turned north up 2nd Street. I was only wearing a sweatshirt, not a jacket, and I yelled, “I’m not dressed for this,” as if a little divadom would help. But he was gone again so I went back inside.

The whole escapade only lasted 15 minutes but I was concerned. There’s very little traffic in this town but he’s a little dog, 10 pounds, a foot high. And he’s a rat terrier, the kind who loves to race and chase things, and he could easily dart out into the street before a driver even saw him.

Tick, tick, tick. Luke, come back!

Well, he did, of course; I control the food supply and it was cold out there. Terriers are athletes, no fat on their bodies, and he doesn’t like cold any more than I do. By the 15-minute mark he was nosing around the backyard.

I got him inside, didn’t chastise him and locked him up. His cage (called a “crate” in marketing-speak, because who would want to put a beloved pet in a cage?) contains a nice warm blanky he just loves to curl up under. I was very upset with him, but I was also calm. Dogs need to run, especially terriers. I don’t blame him, or myself; instead I wish I had an enclosed estate where he could sprint till he was fagged and dragging. Or a dog park, which this little town doesn’t have.

Every time I let him out of his house, he jumps and runs around in circles, until I indicate it’s time to come to the kitchen, in which case he chases off at 60 miles an hour from the living room through the dining room into the kitchen, where he invariably crashes into the appliances. He’s hilarious.

Then he will sit on the rug under the sink, a rug he’s managed to move several feet askew, where he waits for me attentively, all eyes and ears. Food? Outside? Pee? Playtime? Anything, Pops, just show, don’t tell, I no speaka ze English.

When I finally get there (my human walk takes eight seconds tops), he’s ready for anything.

I’m learning to tell whether he’s hungry or thirsty; once I get there, if he heads to his food and water twin-dish, that’s one thing, but if he doesn’t, he wants to go outside. If I move toward the back door, he races to it and sniffs his leash, then sits on the doormat with that same intense concentration. Outside, outside? He doesn’t mind the snow, sleet or rain until he does.

Once I bring him back indoors, he very politely consents to let me dry him off with a paper towel. When it’s really cold and windy, he’ll even let me put a sweater on him.

Amidst all this we’ve had toilet training issues; I used to let him run free in the house, but then I regretted it. So he spends most of his time lately in the cage with that warm blanket. He used to poop when we went on walks (as well as in the dining room) until I learned to stake him outside and leave him for 15 minutes. I haven’t had to do the paper towel-and-plastic-bag routine with him since, because I learned to stop teaching him that walks are for pooping in other people’s yards; now he goes in ours.

It’s still a lot of restriction for his life, full-time in a cage or on a leash or a chain. I hope to ease up soon. I want him with me, not downstairs in a cage. But I also want a dining room I can serve food in.

The learning process is mine more than his. I no speaka ze Dog, but I can learn his body language. Boy needs to stretch his legs on a regular basis; terriers are born to run. Maybe I’ll buy a bike next spring and tie his leash to it.

A few weeks ago when he was still free inside the house, I tried to teach him to bring me his leash when he needs to go out; didn’t work. He won’t take it into his mouth, any more than he’ll chase a ball or go fetch something; I thought all dogs will chase a ball or fetch, but Luke gives me a look like Jack Benny, “Oh, really?”

This two-month relationship means we’re still new. I’m as clueless about ze Dog as he is about ze English. But we’ll get there, I think, it just takes time. I can tell you this: he is as loving an animal as there ever was. He thanks me all the time for his food; at only 10 pounds he’s never going to put a dent as he crashes into the stove. Boy just needs to run, that’s all, and to have rules we both understand.

I had the loveliest dream about him the other night; dreams are crazy, a visual word salad, one tangent after another, but amidst the chaotic reverie of something or other, I looked over and said, “Is that my dog?”

It was, and we held each other as he collapsed with joy; he’d been afraid I was run over by a car, and was overcome when I found him again.++

Luke Learns a Word, I Learn a Technique

Sit Horizontal

You want me to sit? Why didn't you just say so?

I’m starting to think there are no stupid dogs, only stupid dog owners. And I’ve been one.

I have a new dog, a 3-year-old rat terrier mix named Luke, whom I adopted from the Humane Society of Indianapolis. I grew up with fox terriers, but have never had a dog of my own. The Humane Society marked me down as experienced, but in fact I’ve discovered I’m not.

He’s a fine, healthy little boy with an uncertain background. He’s well-socialized in some ways, seldom barks or gets aggressive when he shouldn’t and has a wonderful instinctive disposition to be a most happy fella. But at other times he’s absolutely clueless; for instance, he doesn’t know how to play. He has no interest in squeaky toys or chasing after a ball; I thought all dogs knew how to do that. He won’t play tug-of-war with a sock. He loves to interact with me but his repertoire is limited to jumping up or lying on his back for a belly rub. I suspect he mostly grew up on the streets.

But he’s also been around people, probably from spending the last few months at the animal shelter; he has no problem accepting a leash and sleeping in a crate. He has a good appetite, is the ideal weight for his size and breed (10 pounds) and walks away from his dish when he’s full, leaving a few pellets behind—so I don’t need to worry about giving him too much food. The shelter feeds their dogs once a day so that food dishes are never empty, while I feed Luke twice a day. He generally cleans his plate but not always, so I’m able to adjust his amounts for what he needs.

But toilet training has been an issue, and I’ve been clueless until the last few days. But now we’re getting there, and each day is better and better. He can’t learn if I don’t know how to condition him; it’s Psychology 101. Perform the desired behavior, get a reward. The onus for performing the desired behavior is on me, not on him. He’s a dog, he no speaka ze Inglish.

I can’t “make him do what I want.” But I can and must help him learn behaviors that put us both at ease. How awful it must have been for him the last two weeks to figure out what I want when I no speaka ze Dog. Why is this crazy person upset with me?

But he hasn’t given up or lost any affection for me, he just keeps trying until he gets it right—meaning I do. And yesterday he learned a word: Sit.

He already knew how to sit, but he didn’t know how to Sit. But now Sit = Treat! Luke likes his treats. Oh, is that what you meant? Why didn’t you say so?

It’s been two days now since he pooped on the rug. And two days since I learned always to have treats in my pocket.

I get treats for pooping? Hmm, this ain’t a bad gig. No, boy, it’s where you poop that counts.

More little lessons await us. “Sit” ≠ “before we go outside.” Sit = sit wherever we are, before something good happens, no matter where we are. I’m the one in charge of his mental associations. He can’t associate unrelated concepts unless I teach them to him, and the way to teach a dog is with rewards.

I’ve changed more than he has since I got him October 22. He’s always been affectionate and reasonably smart, but now he’s starting to have a competent human to be with. Yay for our side!

One of my biggest lessons has been to stop thinking that restrictions are bad. His crate helps him stay out of trouble, and besides he likes it; it’s Luke-sized, with a very nice stadium blanket (Indiana University, fit for a dog here in Purdue Land), great for sleeping. That it also keeps him from eliminating when I’m asleep or not watching means he doesn’t get in trouble and there’s no friction in the house. We’re both happy fellas.

LukeAtRest

IU football has gone to the dogs. Again.

Yesterday we tried another new thing: another restriction (to my former way of thinking) that in fact increases his freedom. We went to Wally World and bought a stake-out kit, so he could be outdoors with me while I rake leaves. The idea of being outdoors without going for a walk was new to him; he lasted about 20 minutes before I decided he was getting overstimulated and took him back in the house. It was mid-afternoon, kids were getting out of school, other dogs were going on walks, the guy next door was also working outside, and it got to be too much. But now Luke knows he can be outdoors in the sunshine and I’m right over there, while he has more independence and can look at stuff. He’s got a 30-foot radius but that’s a 60-foot diameter, outdoors in fresh air. We’re going to try it again this afternoon, because I’ve got a lot of leaves to bag up.

Before I met Luke I would never have chained up a dog outside. But in fact it makes us closer emotionally, and gives him a better idea of what’s our yard and what’s not. That is crucial, because I don’t have a fence, and of course I don’t want him running off and getting lost or being hurt.

That’s really been my #1 concern, helping him adjust to a new home and a new human relationship.

Home is a place with walls—that is, restrictions AND safety. The outside world can’t come in, this is our house.

This is our yard, from here to here. Dogs of course have a territorial instinct, but Luke’s got to know where his territory is and is not. It takes time to figure out. (I’m so glad for that new stake and chain.)

This is our neighborhood. If he does someday find himself on his own, I want him to be able to find his way back to my crate, where his supper dish is, where his pal lives.

Once he knows everything he needs to know, we can try even more freedom. But it’s all got to have a structure; Sit = sit. First you sit, then supper comes. First you sit, then we go outside. First you sit, then you get what you want. It’s not just “do as you’re told,” it’s “follow the rules so you’ll be safe.”

And it’s my job, not his, to know the rules and provide the structure until the rules are his own habits. Go ahead and run, baby, but when I call, you come back. I’ve got treats.

There are no dumb dogs, just dumb owners.++