Of Dogs and Writing – Just the Right Word

Each dog brings a certain set of gifts to the family that welcomes it into their home. It also brings certain behaviors that may or may not be quite as welcome. If you are raising a puppy you have many opportunities to train them right from the start. If you adopt an older rescue dog you get behaviors that might have been encouraged by previous owners but that you find unacceptable. Stopping some of those unwanted behaviors might be easier than others. It’s a lot like writing a book- some books just seem to write themselves, entire chapters come out with very little revision needed, the plot falls right into place and the characters are so interesting that you can’t help but turn the page to see what happens next. Other books come out in bits and pieces, starts and stops, where we often think it is the worst thing that was ever written and can’t possibly be fixed except for those days we think every word we write is tinged with gold.

Zoey came to us at about 15 months old and with no known history except being found as a stray and spending a few weeks with a foster mom. She was loving and playful and responded well to verbal corrections from the start. The first night we had her, she jumped on the bed, the only piece of furniture our dogs are not allowed on, but when I told her off  she jumped right down. The next morning she put her front two paws on the bed and I told her off and again, all four feet on the floor. She tried the same trick with sniffing food on the counter but a simple “leave it” was enough to discourage this behavior. Now we can be working on dinner with raw meat on the counter and she is happily sprawled on the floor, not even trying to counter surf. (Not that I would trust her with the meat on the counter if we left the room.)

But all bets were off when she decided she wanted to play. Zoey has no bite inhibition. Previous owners likely thought it was “cute” to have a little snowball puppy mouthing on them. The trouble is that once those adult teeth come in and a dog hasn’t been taught not to clamp down on hands and arms and legs, someone is going to get hurt. In this case, it was me. The first month we had Zoey, every time she wanted to play she would nip at my legs or jump up and nip at my hands and arms. She would get into this manic mode where she was all fired up and nothing I said or did would stop her. My arms and legs were covered with bruises because she didn’t know to not to bite down on me. And of course I made it worse because I didn’t want her to bite so I pushed her away and that merely made her think it was okay to keep playing with me. My hands were just another set of paws tapping her on the shoulder and inviting her to chomp on me. I tried turning my back on her so I could ignore her but it just gave her free access to nip me.

I’ve tried to turn my back on books that didn’t want to be written but the characters haunted me, begging me to keep trying until I got their story right. Some of them are still begging because working on them is more painful than ignoring them. I do not know that I will ever be able to write the essays I want to write about my life in New Orleans. I don’t think Flyboy’s story will ever be finished. And I am starting to think that a particular essay I started on friendship will remain unfinished. It just hurts too much to go on with it.

Our trainer taught us to teach Zoey to “get a toy” so she would always have something in her mouth. That has worked nicely for when Zoey wants to zoom around the yard. She grabs a toy off the porch and runs with it in her mouth. As long as she has the toy in her mouth she can’t nip as she is going by. But as soon as I  walked across the yard to the glider to sit for a while she took that as an invitation to nip. And if I forgot to bring a toy with me it was very painful trying to make my way back across the yard and into the house where I could do a time out, leaving her on the other side of the patio door. The same thing would happen in the house, when we would sit down to eat. Zoey would nip at our feet or legs, ripping clothes (and, sigh, skin) in an effort to get us to play with her.

We started working on the “stop” command, which worked great for our trainer who had perfected the necessary low voice to get Zoey’s attention. (Our trainer can also stop her with a stare. I haven’t mastered that yet.) So I tried working with “stop” in less frantic moments, in the house, and it seemed like it was kinda worked. Except it didn’t. Because when I needed it most was when Zoey was in frantic, manic mode. That was when she was hurting me the most, so in pain and frustration, my already high voice rose even higher in pitch. The more she nipped me, the higher my voice went until “stop! stop! stop!” sounded like a really bad falsetto in a really bad song. (Plus I couldn’t seem to keep from repeating the command which is confusing to the dog.)

I tried practicing lowering my voice but I just couldn’t get it low enough to sound more like a command and less like an invitation to play. So  I parked myself in front of the mirror and practiced saying “stop stop stop” in a bunch of different voices until they all ran together and then, finally, something different came out of mouth. Instead of STOP I said STOOP.

That second “O” makes a difference. My voice automatically dropped lower. Go ahead and try it yourself. I’ll wait.

Impressed? I was. I tried “stoop” with Zoey in the house and it seemed to work. We went outside and I got her riled up then asked her to “stoop” and she did. I think she was a little surprised at herself. Now I can play tug with her (one of her favorite games) and ask her to stop (stoop) then sit then to out the toy before we do it again. And she is doing it!

Here’s my theory. Zoey is a heavy mouthy dog with no training. When a dog (or a person) does something we don’t like, we ask them to stop. I’m guessing that Zoey has heard the word STOP so many times, in so many different voices, that it ceased to have any meaning to her. I needed a new word to communicate to her what I wanted her to do. And I needed a word that would allow me to naturally lower my voice so it would register with Zoey as a command.

The right voice makes a good story great. It’s the difference between finishing a book and remembering a book. Sometimes a character comes to me, whispering in the voice that I know rings true. But other times  finding a character’s voice is a battle, a battle that has to be won in the beginning because I can’t write a bunch of crappy lines to be revised later if I can’t hear the character’s voice. The current work-in-progress isn’t easy. I write a poem I love and realize it doesn’t work in the plot. I dink with the plot and realize it doesn’t work with the characters. But the hardest thing to nail down has been the voice for each of the two main characters. I started off thinking in simple terms, one girl in a good situation who was nice and one girl in a bad situation who was bad. Then I flipped it, good girl in bad situation, bad girl in good situation. That felt better and one of the girls immediately started speaking to me but the voice of the bad girl in a good situation never sounded true and believable. It was forced because I was freaking out about writing something that cut so close to the bone of my own life story. The closer I got to me, the more “off” the voice sounded. I had to force myself to try a lot of different voices, which meant throwing away thousands of words that didn’t work, until I found the pulse of this girl who was me but not me. Until I could hear her whispering to me, begging me, to get her story down.

Zoey has made amazing progress with her nipping in just the last week. I’ve continued to use STOOP as my stop command and it continues to work for Zoey. That’s not to say that all nipping has disappeared. But when it starts, I can stop it with just one word, the right word for me to get my message across in the way that Zoey needs to hear it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , , |16 Comments

Of Dogs and Writing – Doing the Hard Work

Love might be the first ingredient needed for training a dog or started to write a new book but all too soon the love of starting something new fades and reality hits you, this is not going to be easy.

When I first fall in love with a story idea, deeply enough that I have a rough idea of the plot and how it is all going to end, I can almost see the finished book on the shelf. In my vivid imagination it is simply a matter of showing up at the keyboard or notebook every day, putting in a good day’s work, and voila, in no time at all, I have a book I can be proud of, a book my agent can sell, a book my friends and fans can buy. A brand-new book.

But of course there are no places to stumble when I am just writing in my head. The trouble starts when I sit down and start to type.

Zoey has two personalities. When she first wakes up in the morning she is a lovebug who gently nuzzles my head and neck, pushing her body close into mine as if she’s trying to merge with me. I eat it up. I’ve waited so long for a dog who wanted to be mine as much as I wanted it to be mine that if that was all she did all day, I’d probably be happy. But of course that’s not the way it works out.

When we go outside and Zoey wants to play, her other personality comes out. The one that was never taught that you can’t play with humans the way you can with other dogs. She nips at my calves and my hands. She jumps high enough that she could nip at my face. My arms and legs are covered in bruises. Some fading to the yellow green. Some fresh and blue from earlier today.

We are working with a trainer to curb this habit by teaching her the “stop” command. We play tug with a toy, tell her to “stop” and “sit” and then she gets a treat. The fact that she is food motivated helps a lot. I do this many times with her throughout the day but sometimes she doesn’t want to stop. It’s like a switch gets flipped in her brain and she is in manic puppy mode (albeit a puppy who weighs 65 pounds with steel-clamping jaws) and she doesn’t hear the word stop. All she sees is my hands and she is jumping, nipping, pouncing, ignoring the word “stop” or “no”, ignoring the toy I am holding out for her to take instead, ignoring my internal pleas for a magic fix to make this all stop once and for all. But it doesn’t stop. Still she tugs on me, on my clothes, on my legs and arms and hands and skin. And it hurts, it really hurts, and part of me wants to just turn my back on her and crawl into a ball and cry because doggone it, IT HURTS, and I don’t like getting hurt and just half an hour ago, this dog loved me so much she was melting into me.

All this happens in a period of a minute or two. Maybe three. Never long. And I do eventually break the mania, get her to stop, get her to sit. Reward her. Exhale. And it is done.

Later, in the house, with Zoey snoring at my feet, I can count up my battle scars. I can recognize that I got her to break the cycle sooner than the last time. I can give myself credit for staying calm (at least outwardly) and for making progress with this wonderful, slightly wild dog we brought into our lives just three short weeks ago.

But when it is going on, in the midst of trying to not get hurt and trying to train her to stop and trying to stay calm, it seems utterly impossible. In those 2 or 3 minutes of Zoey’s most important training, I think I can’t do it. I’m not a good enough dog trainer to curb this habit, I don’t have the skill set to bring Zoey to her full potential, I don’t know what to do next.

Yet somehow I do. I get through it. I am building my own muscle memory with teaching “stop” and getting her to do the puppy zooms with a toy in her mouth, another safe way for her to release all that energy she has wound so tight. The time for thinking and planning what I am going to do needs to happen before we go outside and engage. In the middle of a tornado there’s no time to think. I need to build the habits that will allow me to act.

It’s the same thing with writing. I face the blank page and I think I have no idea what happens next. I’m not good enough to pull off this intricate plot. I don’t have the skill set to make this the book I envision so clearly in my head.

And yet I do. I’ve been building my writing muscle memory for years. You sit down. You show up to the blank page and you move forward. Sometimes in little baby steps that don’t seem obvious until you are out of the writing session and looking back at how far you have come.

Training a dog or writing a book both come down to the same thing, a willingness to do the hard work. The kind of work that makes some people give up writing or other people throw away a wonderful dog.

Let yourself get lost in the moment. Trust that you know what to do next.

Thursday, January 10, 2013|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |8 Comments

Of Dogs & Writing – First Comes Love

Saying goodbye to our last wonderful dog, Cassie, was heartbreaking. But it was also heartopening because it mean we could go rescue another dog, another German Shepherd, who needed a home.

I contacted Cassie’s foster mom, PJ, who works with German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California.  After I told her about Cassie I asked her to keep an eye out for another dog for us. She said she had one  right then that she thought would be a good match. It was a female white German Shepherd that hadn’t been posted to their website yet. I made an appointment for us to go meet her right away.

Cassie had totally bonded with my husband. This time we were looking for one who would bond with me. And if I were lucky, my heart dog.

Two weeks before Christmas we drove about an hour away to meet PJ and this new dog they were calling Noelle in a parking lot. I had seen one picture of her and been told she had a sweet personality. That’s all I had to go on. The picture was okay but it didn’t capture the essence of the dog.

When PJ and Noelle got out of the car, Noelle’s tail was wagging and she looked up at PJ as if to say, “Time for fun?” My husband stayed back, even though I knew he was dying to pet her, and let me touch her first. As soon as my hand stroked her back, Noelle leaned into me, pressing against my legs and wagged her tail even faster.

I looked back at my husband and told him, “I love her.”

He smiled and said, “I can tell.”

We did our due diligence and walked her around the parking lot, pet her some more, and then, too soon, I handed the leash back to PJ. We started the hour drive back home to discuss the possibility of bringing this particular dog into our home. (No matter what we wouldn’t have been able to take the dog home that day since the rescue group needed to do a home check to make sure we were set up to live with a GSD.)

As a writer, I never run out of ideas of what to write. I have 7 novels waiting in the wings, a list of 23 potential essay topics and a notebook full of snips of poems-yet-to-be. But before I can sit down and actually dig in to do the work I have to have one idea that obsesses me. One character that has me head-over-heels in love with it, so in love that I am willing to follow it through the pain of outlines and crappy-first-drafts, the frustration of writers block and the joy (tempered with frustration) of multiple revision. I have to love a story a lot to be willing to go through all of that.

It’s a lot like making the commitment to bring home a new dog. Not just any new dog, but a rescue dog where you have no idea of the history of the life she has led before becoming a part of your family. Would she like other dogs? Would she chase cars? Would she dig hundreds of holes in the garden? It’s a gamble. The foster parent can give you a general idea of temperament but most dogs don’t show their full personality until they are in a new home for 2-4 weeks. This is what we were told about Noelle: she was found wandering as a stray in Monterey. She had ears full of foxtails. She had no tags, no collar, no microchip, and she hadn’t been spayed. (All marks of an irresponsible owner.) She appeared to be sweet-tempered but PJ had only had her a couple of weeks so there was still much of her personality to uncover.

But I knew. I felt that tug on my heart the same way I do with a story idea. I wanted this dog. I needed this dog and she needed me.

Halfway home I asked my husband if I should call PJ and tell her we’d take Noelle. He said we should at least make it appear that we had spent some time discussing it and I should wait until we got home. An eternity later (okay, an hour) when I called PJ to tell her we wanted Noelle, she said, “What took you so long?”

In just a few (oh-so-long) days, after the home visit, Noelle, whom we decided to call Zoey, came home to her forever home with us.

I can’t start a new book without a title that I feel has a pretty good chance of sticking with the book after it’s published. I can’t write a story without the right names for the characters from the start. And I can’t write at all if I’m not feeling the love for the book or essay or poem that is waiting to be written.

I’ve been in the writing business over 25 years. Along the way I’ve written and sold, greeting cards, short stories, essays, picture books, educational books, poetry, newspaper articles, magazine pieces, and novels. I’ve even done some ghostwriting. I love the act of writing. I love it so much that I often took writing jobs that came from a heart other than mine. Those were always the most difficult and least fulfilling projects to work on. On the flip side, there was a time in my life that I was working three stressful jobs just to try and make ends meet, worrying about my kids who were fighting some hefty battles, and dealing with some health issues of my own. Yet somehow, in the middle of all that, I managed to write Hugging the Rock. How? I loved the story I was trying to tell. I loved the characters. I didn’t mind giving up sleep in order to squeeze in a bit of writing. I wrote poems on scraps of paper while sitting in the parking lot at work trying to find the energy to go inside. I brainstormed plot complications on my lunch hour. I even called myself to leave messages on my answering machine with ideas I didn’t want to forget.

Love gives you the energy to do things you think you can’t possibly do.

Experts often say that it takes 30 days for a rescue dog to bond with their new family. I feel like it took about 30 minutes. The hour long drive home, up and over the Santa Cruz mountains, didn’t phase Zoey at all. She stretched out on her comforter in the back seat and rested. (Poor Cassie never really enjoyed riding in the car and serenaded us with high-pitched barking everywhere we went.)

At home at last I walked Zoey around the house on the leash and then let her go. She took off to sniff and then kept coming back to check in with me. She ate her dinner and took care of business in the backyard and when I invited her up on the couch to sit with me (something I have always wanted but never had from any dog I have ever owned) she didn’t hesitate a second. She folded her body like a noodle to fit into the space next to me on the couch, plopped her head on my thigh and one paw over my leg, and went to sleep.

And just like that I felt the love swell inside of me and overflow.

I know training Zoey won’t be easy. I already know she is a mouthy dog who was never taught that it is not appropriate to play with human hands and feet like they belonged to another dog. I have bruises up and down my arms and legs. But I understand. She is still a puppy, even at 15 months. She is sweet and loving and has had absolutely no training. This is the challenge. This is the fun. She is smart. Oh so smart. And food motivated. The combination makes her a joy to train. I’ll spend the next six months or so getting to know Zoey’s personality and the rest of her life working with her, training her, and loving her just because she deserves to be loved.

I’ve taken some time off from my current WIP, a young adult verse novel. This week I am ready to go back to it. I never fell out of love with my characters or their story. I had just fallen out of love, a little bit, with being me.

But Zoey has changed all that. She won’t make writing any easier. In fact, she will cut into a lot of my writing time and reading time and sleeping time. But what she gives back to me is priceless. Her unconditional love and her belief that I am the center of the universe give me the confidence to be okay with being me, the best and only Susan I can be.

Like I said, love gives you the energy to do things you think you can’t possibly do.


Sunday, January 6, 2013|Categories: Of Dogs and Writing|Tags: , , |19 Comments