Saturday, March 29, 2008

Roll, Smell, Swim

Over the last couple of days of my spring break, Andy took off of work, and we went up to Maine to visit my old friend Jill. Jill has three Goldens of her own, the oldest of which, Finn, is Gus's littermate. While this isn't the most dramatic and wonderful of pictures, it is the only one in which I got all five dogs in frame.

On the left is Comet. The little puppy close to center is Tango. The light, handsome boy front and center is Tally. The next, as you move right, is Finn, and the last dog on the right is Gus.

Tally and Gus aren't really facing off in the surf here. Finn led the charge out to chase some seagulls, and Tally and Gus followed and then played in the shallows. Goldens have truly amazing coats. The undercoat provides a kind of wet-suit effect, and the dogs can handle very, very cold water for quite a while with no problems.

The puppies, with their fuzzy coats, are a completely different story. They can't go in the cold water, and they definitely don't want to.

Comet did splash around a bit in the shallows, and having your nose constantly in the salt and sand requires a lot of licking to clean it off. Here, he's taking a two second break from exploration to check in and make sure he's a good boy. He has to check because, on a beach, he's told to drop something or other almost constantly (e.g., dead crabs, smelly shells, rocks, you name it).

A beach also gives you lots of opportunities for great action shots. The dunes are covered in snow, and it's low tide so there's an expanse of sand to jump down to before the water. Gus had one of his trademark spiritual experiences for the whole walk. He ran down to the water, back across the sand with his nose down to hoover up the smells, up to the snow for a good roll, and back to begin again.

I'm glad he turned out so athletic; I don't know he'd keep up with his own joy otherwise.

Comet experienced similar joy. Just not as...athletically. He's still growing into his new legginess.

Finn, of course, lives with similar gusto (the joy's in the genes, remember?). I caught him in the middle of a rather enthusiastic post-chase shake.

This is Tango, the newest addition to Jill's dog family. She comes from some intelligent, agile, champion stock, and you can already see it in her movement and in her looks. She's a beautiful, cute-as-hell, fluffball Golden, but the joy in watching her goes far beyond her cuteness.

Not to be outdone in cuteness, Comet got his share of rolling in. The beach really did provide the three ideal zones of a dog paradise: a rolling zone, a smelly zone, and a swimming zone.

There's no time to waste. Once the roll's over, you have to rush back to the smells. No indolence, no pause, and certainly no resting.

Gus, of course, is the one who taught Comet that rule of enjoying a walk, or he at least knew it first. The closest Gus came to resting during our hour at the beach was begging for treats from Jill. It's a crucial, non-negotiable skill for a dog to come back when called. If they don't have it, they can't run off the leash and have all the fun of determining their own course across the beach or any other open space. How can you swim, smell, and roll if you have to be within twenty feet of a leash holder?

It's not too difficult to teach a retriever to come back to you: they're bred for recall. Still, an important part of that training is making the recall fun, and periodically rewarding it helps to ingrain it. The treats were brought along primarily to help Tango learn, but the other dogs got a couple too.

Tally comes from showdog stock, so he's a pretty different retriever in terms of his build and coat. Of course, he loves the sand, surf, and snow as much as the rest of them. He does have his own, particular brand of handsomeness, though.

Finn, like his brother, takes a good picture. According to Jill, he likes to go up to the dunes to check on colonies of moles. I'm not sure the moles are all that enthusiastic about it, but Finn certainly loves to smell around those dunes. Once the plover nesting season starts, they're off limits, but the moles can certainly handle a little doggy inspection.

We're already on the way back to the car when this was taken, and then we headed back to Jill's to relax a bit. We were only out for an hour, but it was biting cold and windy, so that's all we humans could handle. The dogs would have stayed for the day, especially the dogs with the grown up fur coats.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Poses and Rolls

Today was quite the day for dog portraiture. Maybe it was the fact that Gus got to jump in the lake and Comet got to splash in the shallows. Maybe it was the temperature. Maybe it's because Andy came. The lighting certainly cooperated. Whatever the reasons, both dogs were looking their best.

The singular focus of Gus's expression is, of course, due to the tennis ball that's on the ground just off camera. Even though he's panting, the focus brings his lower jaw up, and he becomes perfectly motionless, dedicated to his moment. I wonder what it is about that dedication that looks like wisdom. Maybe he's completely at peace with himself and his desire. Or maybe he's a sweet, sweet, silly dog.

Maybe it's the same thing.

Of course, since Comet is growing so fast, he does have his awkward, discombobulated moments just as frequently as he gives those beautiful looks into the far-off ether. Though less flattering, these goofy, loose-faced expressions are perhaps the more accurate portraits.

He's crossed the line in my mind from being a big puppy into being a small dog. His face and build have more of the long, adult proportions, and he's starting to move and act more like he will when he's truly full size.

That doesn't mean he can't be completely adorable when the opportunity presents itself.

Gus will jump into the water these days just for the sheer pleasure of it (though, to me, the pleasure of a March dip in a New England lake on a sub-forty day is dubious to say the last). And when he gets out, he'll stare at you with great hopes that you'll magically produce a tennis ball for him to fetch. Nobody's holding a ball or a stick off camera here. This is just Golden hope.

As you dry out, it's important to get a roll in. A nicely-clipped field is one of Gus's favorite places to scratch his back as he dries. His total abandoment to the process is a joy to watch.

Of course, what would time on the field be without a little fetching? Gus turned up an old baseball and insisted we let him run around a little bit. Comet is still enthusiastic about joining in the chase, though he tends to give up once Gus gets ahead of him. The ball is out of Gus's mouth in this picture because he's tossing it back to us for another throw.

I'm trying to make sure that Comet doesn't lose interest in fetching balls during the period that Gus has such an advantage. Gus has a tendency to run out before you've thrown so he can get a head start, which provides a great opportunity to give Comet a short throw he can get to and retrieve before Gus has a chance to notice and steal the precious ball.

Comet, as you'd expect, likes to get a good roll in too. For some reason, he decided to tear at the dry grass with his teeth as he rolled around, all the while eyeballing Andy as if to say, "Why aren't you joining in? This is one of life's great, guiltless plesasures."

Gus, of course, is hoarding the ball for himself now that he has it back.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

We Stole a Day

I usually put up photos and musings about the dogs, but I thought I’d go back and post some of the best photos from our little stolen day at the Bronx Zoo. Andy suggested we take a jaunt down there together, and it turned out to be a fantastic idea. Nobody wants to go to the zoo in March, so we kind of had the run of the place.

Nothing like a lazy Grizzly.

The majestic Bison. Andy and I engaged in a not-so-heated debate about whether or not you could eat Bison. Apparently, you can, but we’re probably not talking about these particular Bison.

One of my favorite parts of the Bronx Zoo is the “World of Birds,” an imaginative and intimate set of bird exhibits. Some species of birds will religiously stick to lighter, warmer spaces, so they can live in their habitat without a screen or glass between them and visitors.

This White-throated Bee-eater is one such bird. I’m still using the same little 3x zoom I’ve had for a couple of years, so I’m actually only about eight feet from this bird.

Nobody knows how to lounge around better than the bears. I think they were still experiencing some torpor since March can’t be too far out of hibernation season.

The snow leopards weren’t exactly fired up either. And they can’t be trusted to hang out in their habitats without some fencing, so there’s no way to take a photo without those telltale vertical blurs.

As far as I could tell, this White-naped Crane was free to come and go as he pleased. Most of the outdoor bird exhibits seemed to consist of an offering of excellent habitat that would encourage wild birds to stop by and exhibited birds to stay. It’s possible (and I suppose likely) these cranes were somehow wing-clipped and unable to fly out, but there was no netting enclosing their habitat, just fencing.

As we walked around the zoo, we heard a mysterious sound echoing back and forth across the hills and buildings. Was it angry baboons? A mysterious and exotic bird?

It was an uppity sea lion and her screechy bark. Up close, it was obviously a loud sea lion noise, but filtered through trees and over a hill, it was much harder to place. She hooted and hollered incessantly pretty much the entire time we were at the zoo.

One of my favorite exhibits here, even since I was a kid, is “Jungle World,” a series of interconnected habitats climate controlled in the high seventies and even higher humidity. Again, with as little glass or other obvious enclosures as possible, the habitats are structured to encourage the animals to stay in the right areas. The feel, though, is a little more like a stroll through the jungle than it is like a museum.

Although this tree kangaroo could easily have been stuffed for all the moving it didn’t do. I don’t think I could ever be that limply comfortable on a branch, but he was pretty blissful in this pose.

When I saw this Malayan Tapir, it was with a certain degree of the shock of a strong memory.  I suddenly felt like the little kid I was, overwhelmed with joy, when I first came to Jungle World and saw the Tapir. I don’t know if it’s the same actual Tapir, but it was certainly sitting in the same spot with the same depressed stare. If A. A. Milne had written about jungle life, the Tapir would have been Eeyore.

What would a trip to the zoo be without a giraffe sighting? Apparently the giraffes had just made the transition from their indoor, winter habitat back to the fresh air of the New York area, so they were strutting around proudly. Although, that may simply have been the way they have to walk. I’ve never seen a giraffe stroll, idle, or slouch. I suppose one could amble without too much difficulty, though.

This is an Aztec Tern coming in for a landing in yet another open-feeling habitat, this time for arctic birds. It’s covered over with a huge dome of netting and filled with terns, penguins, and the like.

Here’s one of the Aztec Terns giving Andy the hairy eyeball.

I have some mixed feelings about zoos. On the one hand, I love being able to see these animals up close. I’ve always been enamored of even fleeting glimpses of the varied and beautiful life around me, so being able to pore over the crisply delineated colors of an Aztec Tern from only a few feet away is eminently gratifying. On the other hand, there is something inherently unwild and perhaps even unethical about containing an animal for the purpose of spectating, particularly when that animal’s natural urge is to roam and migrate. I know Golden Retrievers gain weight, become depressed and anxious, and live shorter lives when they’re cooped up too much, so I wonder how a Snow Leopard understands his one or two acres or how Tern feels in even the grandest cage. I think it’s terribly important for people to see the variation and beauty offered outside of human artifice and entertainment, and that a zoo probably contributes immensely both to people’s lives and to their sense of the importance of conservation.

But maybe I just tell myself that so I can feel OK about financially supporting a zoo with my $10 admission.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Walk With the Boys

The picture of the dogs came out so nicely that I just had to take another photo from the same spot, this time with Andy in the mix. The day was a bit cool, but it wasn't too bad for a nice walk and a photo-op.

At least it's easy to get Andy to stand still and look great.

Comet will still carry sticks with great dedication on a walk. And if you get the camera focused before you call his name, sometimes you can take a lucky shot before he starts flying back to you with it.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Crazed and Noble

I spent quite a bit of this walk letting Comet get out ahead of me with a stick and then calling him back so I could snap shots of him in full retrieve. He thought it was great fun and started preemptively returning just in case it would garner him a "good dog."

We bought some lean turkey hot dogs to chop into bits and bring on walks as a way to confirm Comet's good behavior when he returns. However, I've forgotten them every walk so far, but he's always returned happily to every call, so here's to a dog who wants to be good with little need for gustatory motivation.

Comet has developed far enough along physically that, unlike when he was little and walked at my heels or even dragged a little at the end, he now walks out ahead of me for almost the whole of three miles. And, like Gus, he stops once in a while, as if to wonder why I don't like to trot quickly back and forth with my nose to the ground.

I'm out for a stroll, but they think walks are a religion.

Of course, the noble look back for a lagging friend is but one of a myriad of expressions available to a young Golden. Total, explosive, psychotic discombobulation can follow seconds later, sometimes while that lagging friend has decided to call you in order to see if he can catch you at a particularly athletic moment.

Athletic, no. Hilariously deranged? You decide.

It's an endearing quality, this ability to be both joyously insane and effortlessly noble, sometimes concurrently. The boys, obviously, look beautiful and well-adapted to their surroundings. What's not instantly obvious is that it's thirty-three degrees out, and Gus has been jumping in and out of the water for no reason at all. The lake still had ice on it a couple of days before this, but the cold isn't nearly enough to stop a Golden who hasn't had a good splash since September.