Saturday, March 28, 2009

Slavering Hell Puppies

Just a week after Ajax survived his epic trek with us from Maine to Connecticut, he huddled in the back of the Jeep with just me to head down to New Jersey for a couple of days to attend our nephew’s christening. That meant that Ajax got a chance to meet back up with his beloved blue-collared brother, Ojo, for a little playtime.

The funny thing about puppy play, which is generally adorable, is that when you freeze it with a camera’s shutter, you realize you’ve captured some kind of  primordial wolf behavior. Your otherwise mild-mannered, adorable Golden Retriever puppy seems to have traded in the familiaris in his scientific name for an extra lupus. You’ve got a fuzzy timber wolf in a collar.

Ajax had the particularly crazy wolf face, and though Ojo really did give as good as he got overall, there are a couple of pictures in which Ajax’s game face seems to have intimidated him just a little bit.

If the first three pictures call into question my claim that this is indeed play-fighting, I offer up this evidence. Ajax’s posture, with his head down, butt in the air, and tail wagging away, communicates an invitation for fun, not for a fight.

To their credit, the dogs played for a good hour like this and neither got carried away. At no point was there so much as a yelp or any other reason to do anything but let them enjoy themselves together.

The reason they’re this good at restraining their biting so as not to cause pain or damage is that they spent so long with their littermates and with adult dogs at the breeder’s. Being around other dogs at that young age really helps them learn how much is too much and how much is just plain fun.

It wasn’t all fighting. There were plenty of opportunities to explore the yard and to engage in games of chase. After a few cautious trips up and down a lower section of this wall, Ajax grew more and more adventurous, until he was making flying leaps. We’re starting to see that fledgling athleticism that makes these dogs so beautiful.

There were also lots of opportunities to fetch a ball (and apparently an incidental oak leaf) and for Ajax to show off both his flashy toes and his flashy gait. He really is put together beautifully, so his motion is a pleasure just to watch.

We took Ajax with full awareness that his chest patch and white toes constitute significant faults in terms of his conformation to breed standard. He is, however, a full-blooded, registered Golden Retriever, so he’s eligible for any AKC competition. Since we have no plans for showing dogs in the conformation ring, his attitude and physical soundness were what truly mattered. And, frankly, I wouldn’t take away the blaze or the white on the toes even if I could.

Incidentally, a good bath revealed that the chest blaze is almost a perfect π (pi) symbol. How’s that for a dog that made me think of circles and cycles from the very first moment he entered our lives?

And, of course, not all playing has to involve slavering gladiatorial tooth-clashing. Fortunately, there were two balls. Both dogs fetch beautifully, and both love parading around proudly with their prizes.

By the end of this weekend, when Kate and Ty and Ojo finally went back to Boston, Ajax just crashed on the floor for a couple of hours, completely exhausted and happy to have seen his brother again. It’s nice to think that our family get-togethers will give these puppies a chance to get together too.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Chasing Tails

Ajax’s very first woods walk was today, and he took to it like a spirit coming home. Watching Ajax chase Comet down the trail, either in pursuit of Comet’s stick or just for the plain fun of it, I was reminded of the way Comet chased Gus. I felt as strongly as ever the sense of an unbroken circle of joy and adventure, passed from dog to dog in the chasing of the tail ahead.

We also noticed how much the arrival of Ajax has affected Comet. He has loved tearing through the woods these last few months, but having a friend to share it with again has put just a little more lift into his steps, a little more roll in his gait, and just a little more speed into his sprints. Funny though, he never goes quite fast enough to totally lose Ajax. Where would the fun be in that?

The woods walk is one of the secrets to our dogs’ 100% reliability in coming back to us. Learned from Jill, my friend and mentor, this technique involves capturing the retriever’s natural willingness to come back and play and then rewarding him with a delicious treat and lots of praise.

Pretty soon he starts to figure out that “come” is a really fun game with a party at the end. Fun enough to get all four feet in the air at the same time.

Of course, the woods aren’t all about the room to run and chase. As devotees (let me flatter myself for a second) of Puppy Tao will recognize, smelling every possible bit of the woods is a crucial part of enjoying your time away from home.

A fragment of a pine branch must tell a whole story to a dog’s nose. Their sense of smell isn’t just more sensitive than ours; it can precisely distinguish individual smells from a complex mix. Ajax must be reading about the travels of deer and porcupines, millipedes and hikers, about growth, decay, and everything in between.

Ajax did a great job learning to come back to us, even as he was practically overwhelmed with the surfeit of rich experience surrounding him. Even though we got him when he was a bit older than when we got Comet or Gus, I think we’ll still be able to get to that truly reliable level of focus and cooperation that allows us to take dogs so many places without fear that they’ll run off or become otherwise unmanageable.

Let the capturing of fun puppy expressions begin. This one is particularly nice because you can see that his grown up fur is coming in on his face, but the top of his head is still fluffy puppy fur.

At the end of a hike, even a short, puppy-friendly one, it’s a nice time for some water and some very nice sharing by the boys.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ajax Is Here

We did it. Andy and I went up and evaluated four puppies and picked out the one that seemed the most physically sound, even-tempered, and suited to the lifestyle we have planned for him.

That also happened to a pup with a large white blaze on his chest. It’s a pretty substantial fault in the show ring, but it has no influence whatsoever on his health, personality, or athletic ability, and it’s cute as heck to boot. We have no plans to breed him or show him, so we grabbed him and named him Ajax.

There was another puppy who looked just like Gus did at that age and had good conformation to boot, but he didn’t have that outgoing, adventurous personality that we saw in the white blaze boy.

So, now we have a hellion charging through the house, grabbing shoes, finding long-lost socks under furniture, and wiggling his way into our hearts.

Even though he is a little bit of a scamp, we only have to tell him a couple of times that something is off limits and he seems to grasp it fairly well. He takes direction wonderfully and came pre-loaded with basic commands from the breeder. While it’s fun to train those first steps yourself, it’s pretty nice to have the foundation already laid.

Comet, as predicted, is an exemplary big brother. He hasn’t shown any jealousy over attention, toys, treats, or foods. Quite the contrary: he loves interacting with the squirmy little guy.

In the backyard this morning, Comet picked up his tennis ball, teased Ajax with it, and ran off. A several minute session of lapping the yard ensued as Comet taught Ajax to follow, then to anticipate the single fake, and finally the double fake, and Comet streaked back and forth with the puppy in hot pursuit.

It’s comforting to watch that sweet Golden spirit passing down from dog to dog, transmitted through the medium of a wet plush rabbit toy that once belonged to Gus and now is being soaked anew by the spit of the next joyful spirit.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Investing in Puppy Futures

Spring means ticks, but it also means longer days and less rushing around to capture those precious daylight hours. It also means faster shutter speeds and crisper pictures of moving dogs.

Apparently, it also means time for a new puppy. Gus’s breeder has a few sixteen-week-old puppies, sons of Gus’s brother, that she can’t properly train herself because of an injury, and it seemed that the cosmos was suddenly aligning to put a puppy in our lives and bring us back to our two dog days and nights.

Looking back of photos of Gus, like this one, taken when he was about the age of the puppy we’ll get tomorrow, I have struggled with the idea of getting a puppy so closely related to sweet Gus. I wondered if I would find myself chasing echoes of my beloved friend in a puppy that shares so much DNA with him. I realize, though, that I simply don’t feel that way about the power of DNA.

(Photo Credit: Donna Tippy)

A dog’s look is strongly influenced by his DNA, as his is temperament and a multiplicity of other qualities. Nonetheless, his personality, his uniqueness, his attitude, his, well, him-ness are part of that ineffable mix of experience and biology that transcends protein replication. What I loved about Gus was Gus himself, and it will never be found again on this earth. This new dog will equally be himself and only himself, and he will be loved on those terms.

If we do see echoes of Gus’s face, or his drive, or the songs he would sing when we came home to him, I think I’ll smile a sad smile and remember the noble boy he was and be happy in the knowledge that Gus was a friend and mentor to Comet and Comet is a friend and mentor to this new boy, and that Gus’s spirit will continue to live on through that chain.

(Photo Credit: Donna Tippy)

This new dog is going to have quite a time keeping our hearts quite as light as Comet has, with his goofy expressions and total willingness to jump up on rocks and pose for me. Comet has studied hard in the ways of friendliness, sweetness, and all out enjoyment of life, and he shouldn’t have any trouble passing those lessons on to a new generation.

And, of course, that puppy is going to have to learn to soar.