Sunday, November 23, 2008

R.I.P. T.S. Eliot (Hound)

Last week Danna and I made the difficult decision to have our beloved Boston Terrier, Eliot, put down. Wracked with anxiety, he had been living a miserable existence. Neighbor kids throwing a football around, for instance, would terrify him and send him, all teeth and claws, into a Taz-like fury at the windows and glass front door. Whenever we left the house, he would nip at us and throw his little body against the door as we slipped out and locked up. And we couldn't have friends over--he bit one of Danna's friends on the nose once as she leaned in to pet him.

Still, he brought so much joy to our home. Boston Terriers, with their short snouts and huge eyes, are known for their human-like facial expressions. Sometimes, when sleepy, he would look like our little boy who needed tucking in or another song sung to him. Other times (which was every time we watched a movie on the couch) he would lock his eyes with ours, giving us the most serious look you can imagine to demand we play fetch or tug-of-war. I know this will sound irreverent, but his prominent brow, intense, unflinching eyes combined with his mustache-like jowls connoted the face of Friedrick Nietzsche or other Wiemar Era men whose walrus staches underscore their soul-beholding stares in the old photographs:

We got Eliot from a breeder in Clinton, Missouri, two and a half years ago. When we first talked seriously about getting a Boston Terrier, Danna and I had just returned from a multi-city trip to Chicago and NYC (where I proposed to her), where we had seen more than several of these handsome looking dogs, strolling the sidewalks of Logan Square & the East Village, dressed in tuxedos. They were gregarious little creatures and had these adorable perpetual smiles on their faces. Danna wanted one, and when we got back home, she did some research and learned they were the perfect city dogs due to their small size, minimal need for exercise, and preference for living indoors.

I happened to mention that my wife really wanted a Boston Terrier at the end of class one day that fall, and one of my students mentioned that her aunt breeds Bostons and English Bulldogs. She said she could 'hook us up' with her aunt the breeder. We didn't know what to look for in a dog, much less did we know what to look out for. For instance, upon arrival we noticed that the breeder kept the Bostons in the same pens as the English Bulldogs, which should have sounded the first alarm. The dog she recommended to us seemed healthy enough, but he had scratches on his pupils, which she claimed were superficial, and he was already six months old (alarms two & three). The breeder rationalized this last fact for us with a simple-enough explanation: "He was the runt of the litter." Danna loved him right away; I liked his looks and loved how inexpensive he was: at $150.00, this broke-as-a-joke teacher would not find his fiance a better dog for less. Soon we learned that the scratches weren't in the least bit superficial. He had cataracts. Soon we realized that he hadn't found a home not because of his runt status but because of his eye condition and his less than ideal socialization. Despite his problems, we bonded with him, and soon he was our baby.

Our first six months with him seemed comparable to experiences everyone has with puppies. He quickly acclimated to our apartment at the edge of one of Kansas City's noisiest entertainment districts. We took him on long walks around the neighborhood, where we introduced him to children and passers-by. We visited the dog park and the pet store, it seems, once a week. He wasn't aggressive at first, only fearful, pinning his big ears back and tensing up whenever someone came within proximity of him. One day on the patio of the neighborhood coffee shop, though, he growled at one of Danna's friends. This was pivotal.

At around the same time as the earliest signs of aggression, he took up his post as house sentry. Whenever someone walked down the sidewalk, he manned the armchair facing the window and barked and whined. Over time, this guard dogging behavior turned into acute anxiety. Hearing the slightest noise, he would register it as a threat, often leaping out of sleep on the couch to growl and bark from the windows, pacing the length of our apartment with tears staining the fur around his eyes.

Needing help, we rented the first two seasons of The Dog Whisperer and indoctrinated ourselves with Cesar Milan's behaviorism like a new religion. He had to sit or lay down before eating, receiving a treat, or leashing up. On walks, Eliot trotted at our side or just a pace behind our footsteps. We blew Casar's Sch, Sch! attention-grabbing sound from our teeth and parted lips like pros whenever he got anxious over a noise. Carrying ourselves as the alpha dogs worked in some contexts: he seemed more disciplined and compliant around the house, and our walks around the block were more efficient than before.

But his watch dog's aggression soon transferred itself to other situations. On walks, Eliot began lunging after passing trucks and bicyclists. We had to start avoiding pedestrians by steering him across the street to the adjacent sidewalk. When we took him to Arkansas for Thanksgiving two years ago, he nipped at my brother as he leaned in to pet him. That winter, he began nipping the shins and hands of friends as they entered the apartment. He growled at them and bared his teeth. His growl had grown deeper and more serious, which alarmed us.

Still, our dog wasn't aggressive toward us. He was affectionate if not more than a little needy. He always had to be in a lap, for example. I called Danna the Lady with the Lapdog , and soon our baby talk voice for him developed into a unique dialect of English.

Unlike his aggressive tendencies around people, Eliot's interactions with other dogs were merely fearful and therefore awkward. Face to face with a dog, he reminded me of Melville's Bartleby. As the dog approached him and attempted to interact, Eliot's body language all but said I would prefer not to. At the dog park, we would have to encourage him to play chase with the other dogs. Too skittish to play, he would either stand back and watch, or move in and sniff their equipment. Most dogs just ignored our little gentleman, overdressed as he was in his black and white tuxedo. Some dogs, though, seemed offended by his aloofness (if you'll excuse this slip into complete anthropomorphizing) and singled him out for abuse. Once a miniature pinscher tried picking a fight. Another time, on a crowded Saturday morning, this Greyhound-Pit Bull mix from hell, intent on roughing him up, chased him through a slalom-like course swerved between the field packed with dogs and people. (He won the race, by the way, and in his single shining dog park moment earned the attention and praise of all in attendance.) The last straw was one spring afternoon last year when a Great Dane chased him, placed his giant paw on his back, and rode him into the grass like a linebacker sacking a quarterback's failed sneak along the sideline. Afterward, we marked the dog park off of our list of outdoor activities.

One day I came home from work to find Danna on the stoop in tears. "When you go inside, don't look at him," she said. "He's been bad. He bit our neighbor on the face...he drew blood...we might get sued and they might make us put him to sleep." It turned out that the neighbor had been drinking heavily, which explained, in turns, why the guy felt the need to lean in and put his head next to a strange dog's, why his superficial cut bled so much, and why he never mentioned the incident. A week later, Danna scheduled a behavior consultation with the leading animal behaviorist in Kansas City, a solid professional who often answers pet questions on KCUR's Up To Date. The behaviorist confirmed what we already knew: Eliot suffered from extreme anxiety, which caused him to react to strangers approaching him aggressively. He prescribed Prozac and recommended several behavior modification exercises we could practice while at home and on walks. Several months passed with minimal improvements. The watch-dogging reached a new crescendo. And he was still aggressive toward pedestrians. At the next consultation, the behaviorist increased the dosage of Prozac to a level often used to treat dogs twice his weight. When the increased dosage did not improve his anxiety, the behaviorist switched Eliot to the canine form of Paxil. Months passed. Still, there was no improvement.

[I'll post more later.]

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sean Hill was in Kansas City over the weekend to give a reading promoting his first book, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor. After hearing him read and spending some time talking with him, I'm really excited to read the book, which is a series of poems excavating the Wright family lineage and post-Civil War race relations in his hometown, Milledgeville, GA (incidentally, Flannery O'Connor's hometown). Good friend Wayne Miller, friends with Sean since their MFA days in Houston, had recommended the book back in February. But I had a giant stack of new poetry books to work through and couldn't afford to order the six he recommended.

But the reading went so well! Filling the auditorium at the Plaza Library, I was proud of Kansas City. Sean read his gorgeous poems, more than several of them written in form, traditional and invented. He read one, a new one, called "Penumbra" whose ending had the most seamless associative shifts from image to image that I've come across in months. Here's the first two sections of "Words like Rivers", from Blood Ties & Brown Liquor:

Words Like Rivers


At bars we banter over brown liquor,
Irish Scotch Canadian—
none of these my people.

Whiskeys, brown with undertones—
reds and yellows—
arranged behind bars.

All I want is a swallow,
but I just broke this bottle.
Lord all I need’s a swallow,
but I done broke my bottle.
Broken bottle blues—wallowing
in them broken bottle blues.


Black men bibulous—
bilious like me belching
the morning after whiskey—

stream words like rivers
and families riven over

My old lady’s yellow
and round like the moon.
I say my lady’s full
and yellow like the moon.
And Lord I can’t afford her
and that baby due in June.

He, Wayne, Jeanne (Wayne's totally awesome gf) and I had drinks at Wayne & Jeanne's after the reading. Sean's company proved solid as his poems.