Alternative Christmas Trees

It’s been years–decades, in fact–since we’ve had a Christmas tree in our house. With dogs drinking the tree water and knocking over the tree time and again, requiring us to repeatedly clean up broken ornament shards and pine needles, we just decided it was too much of a hassle. But maybe we weren’t looking at the issue with sufficient . . . creativity.

In San Antonio, where Whataburger is the favored local fast food option, one guy ate nothing but Whataburger food for weeks to obtain the cups, stryrofoam containers, fast food wrappers, and french fry boxes needed to turn his little tree into the colorful Whataburger celebration shown above. That’s the Whataburger logo in the top of tree star position, too.

The guy says he could eat (and sometimes does eat) Whataburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which you would need to do to collect all of the different tree decorations shown in the photo. The linked article quotes him as saying: “I mean, you can just never go wrong with Whataburger.” And what’s really impressive is that the boxes and containers don’t appear to be grease-stained. He evidently washed out and dried all of the debris to avoid attracting bugs and other vermin.

I’m guessing the Whataburger fan doesn’t have dogs, though. Even a good washing and drying wouldn’t keep our dogs from nosing through and probably destroying fast food boxes and bags.

Into Enemy Territory

German Village is one huge squirrel district, but Schiller Park is ground zero. There the trees and lawns are replete with those cute little rats with bushy tails, ever tantalizing to the dogs being walked around and through the park.

It’s interesting to watch Betty’s reaction to the park. Normally, she is a somewhat desultory fellow walker, taking a sniff here and there as we amble along. But as we approach and then enter the Schiller Park grounds, Betty’s whole attitude changes. Her posture stiffens, she goes nose to the ground for any olfactory clues, she scans the area with laser-like focus, and she is ever ready to charge after any squirrel in the vicinity. Nothing escapes her gaze. It’s as if every sensory organ has been switched on and dialed up and is vibrating to its maximum possible level.

Dogs like Betty in a squirrel-heavy area define the meaning of “alertness.”

The Golden Age Of Dog Food

We’re watching Russell’s dog Betty while Russell heads down south for the wedding of some friends. Over the last few days, I’ve been responsible for serving Betty her evening and morning meals, which has caused me to pay careful attention to her dog food.

It’s no wonder that Betty wolfs down her food with voracious speed as soon as the dog bowl hits the floor of the pantry. She’s getting some pretty high-end chow here. Her cans of Pedigree state that they are made with real beef, and some include “filet mignon flavor.” And her Fromm brand food is labeled as “grain free” pate–chicken pate, to be precise. To add to the sophisticated air of the Fromm offering, the Fromm can labels include disclosures in both English and French.

In case you’re interested, Betty’s “dog food” in French is “pate de poulet nourriture pour chiens” that is “sans cereales.” It even sounds classier, doesn’t it? I’m surprised Betty doesn’t request a cloth napkin and a candlelit place setting before she sticks her head into the bowl and starts gobbling it.

We’re clearly not alone in the tony dog food department When you walk around German Village and notice deliveries on doorsteps, pet-related boxes tend to dominate, and since GV clearly is dog territory, many of the packages contain dog food. Chewy.com seems to be a popular on-line venue for dog food, and it offers a huge array of different brands that include contents like “big Texas steak,” salmon, and chicken. That’s pretty tempting stuff for Fido.

We may be living through tough times for humans, but it’s a golden age for dogs.

Zigzagging To Work

The lobster boat workers of Stonington are early birds. They awaken at the crack of dawn, don their waterproof work clothes, pull on knee-high rubber boots, grab their lunch pails, and head to the water in their pickup trucks while the rest of the world is still abed. Those who anchor their boats off the Stonington town pier then walk down an aluminum ramp to a floating dock that zigzags out into the water. There they board the outboard craft that shuttle them to the larger, sturdier lobster boats in the harbor that chug out to the open water where the buoys and traps may be found. The Stonington floating dock employs a zigzag construction to conform to the available space while accommodating the maximum number of motorboats.

Usually this process is long completed by the time I walk by just after 6 a.m. and the floating dock is empty. Yesterday, though, a few lobstermen were just departing—with the help of their faithful dog.

Incidentally, it’s not unusual to see dogs on the motorboats, usually seated upright at the bow while their human companion operates the outboard. If you’re a dog, it’s got to beat hanging your head out of the passenger-side window of the car.

Major’s Minor Incident

Poor Major Biden.

The three-year-old German Shepherd has been sent from the White House back to the Bidens’ home in Wilmington, Delaware after a recent incident where the dog bit the hand of a Secret Service agent. The Secret Service said the injury was “extremely minor” and “no skin was broken.” However, some anonymous White House sources — there apparently are anonymous White House sources about everything, even dogs — said that Major also has been having issues with aggressive behavior, including jumping up on people, barking, and charging at White House staff and security. In a recent interview the First Lady said she has been focused on trying to get Major and the Bidens’ other dog, 13-year-old Champ, settled since the Bidens moved into the White House. She noted, for example, that the dogs have to take an elevator and have a lot of people watching them when they go out on the White House South Lawn for exercise.

I feel sorry for Major and other White House dogs, because the White House has got to be a tough environment for a dog. There are strangers coming in and out at all hours, and lots of people feeling stress and pressure–including, at times, the President and First Lady. Dogs are sensitive beings, and I’m sure Major feels the increased stress levels and is unsettled by all of the new faces. At the same time, if Major is nipping, jumping up, barking, and charging people, that poses a tough predicament for the Bidens, because dog misbehavior can escalate. You’d like to have your dog around, as one of the members of the family, but you can’t run the risk of the dog jumping up on a foreign dignitary or a member of Congress or the Cabinet, or really biting someone and doing some damage. And if the dog is barking and charging people, that’s got to be really tough for White House staffers, who can’t be sure whether Major is going to be a good boy or a growling threat the next time they see him in one of the White House hallways or the Oval Office.

Sending Major back to Delaware seems like a sensible approach to the problem and a good way to keep Major’s minor incident from becoming a real major problem.

The Champion Squirrel Chaser

I’ve written before about the dogs and squirrels at Schiller Park. The neighborhood dogs love to chase the squirrels, and the squirrels seem to enjoy taunting the dogs, which are never quite able to actually catch the squirrels.

With one notable exception: the little white dog above. This dog is the champion squirrel chaser at Schiller Park. She was made to chase squirrels in the same way Lamborghinis are designed to go from zero to 60 m.p.h. in ridiculously short amounts of time. The dog runs like the wind and takes corners and changes direction at top speed — tail wagging furiously all the while. The dog has energy to burn and never stops to take a breather. Squirrels expect the little white dog to be as slow and clumsy as other dogs, and are then surprised when she actually catches them and knocks them down. I’ve watched her send an astonished squirrel tumbling, and it is a sight to behold. (Fortunately, the squirrel was able to immediately regain its feet and dart up a nearby tree.)

Today the dog was at the park and I snapped the photo above — which is about the best picture you’re going to get, because the dog is basically a white furry blur at all times. I talked to her owner and asked if she could share what the dog eats, because I’d consider changing my diet to capture some of the never-ending energy that dog has. The woman laughed and said that the dog just loves to run and chase squirrels. “It’s her nature,” the woman explained.

It certainly is. Watching this little dog chase squirrels would be like watching Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or watching Ernest Hemingway write The Sun Also Rises. You can’t help but stop and appreciate an artist working in her true medium.

Dog Yawns

If you’ve been around dogs much, you know that they tend to yawn. In fact, they yawn a lot. Russell’s dog Betty, for example, is a ferocious yawner, with the all-out yawn frequently followed by a full-bodied stretch.

Why do dogs yawn — and for that matter, why do humans yawn? Just about every species yawns, and scientists don’t know exactly why. Yawns clearly happen in response to periods of boredom or fatigue, but they don’t seem to help resolve those conditions by, for example, energizing the yawner and equipping him or her to withstand more of a droning meeting. So why yawn in the first place? Yawns also can occur during times of stress or social conflict — for both humans and dogs. And once a yawn begins, you just can’t stop it, no matter how embarrassing yawning at that particular moment might be.

Once of the more interesting things about yawns is that, in certain species like humans and chimpanzees, yawns are contagious. A good yawn from someone in a room can set off a chain reaction of yawning, and people who are empathetic are most likely to yawn in response to the yawn of another. But research also indicates that a good yawn from a dog’s human friend can provoke a yawn in the dog. In short, contagious yawns happen between two distinct species. Scientists believe that this is another indication of the incredibly close emotional connection between people and dogs.

They don’t call dogs “man’s best friend” for nothing. So the next time you transmit a good yawn to your dog, enjoy that empathetic moment — and then take her for a walk, will you?

The Window Watcher

Russell’s dog Betty is staying with us for a few days. Betty is a happy, well-behaved dog whose needs are few. Give her food, a place in the sunshine to nap, a walk now and then, and occasional exposure to squirrels, and she is a happy camper.

But Betty is also a window dog. She’s drawn to them, like iron filings to a magnet, just to check out what’s going on in the world outside our house. One of her favorite spots to alight is our bed, so she can look outside the two windows shown above. I’ve always thought that there’s really not much of interest to see from those particular windows, which look out onto the street, the buildings across the street, and the sky beyond, but Betty obviously disagrees. Maybe she’s hoping a squirrel scampers by on one of the overhead wires, or maybe she likes seeing the clouds drift by on their journey to the east. (It’s also possible, of course, that she likes the spot because it combines soft surfaces and sunshine in the morning hours.)

When I find Betty in this spot, I usually take a look out the windows, to make sure I am not missing something. It’s another reminder that dogs and humans see the world a bit differently.

Sign Of A Dog

We haven’t had a dog in the house for several years now, although we’ve provided dog-sitting services by taking care of Betty from time to time. So when we found this chew toy left behind by Richard and Julianne’s dog Pretty, from their visit over the summer, it brought back memories of the chew toys, squeak toys, jingle balls, bones, rawhide ropes, rubber rings, and other dog paraphernalia that Dusty, Penny, and Kasey enjoyed in years past. They all had their favorites, and would contentedly spend hours munching and squeaking and jingling away. Part of dog ownership was finding the toys in various locations and returning them to the dog bed.

Pretty evidently has given this little green frog a good workout, since it’s missing one of its legs and looks like it has been chewed out of round. Still, Mr. Frog maintains his brave smile. We’ll be sending him back down to Austin to rejoin Pretty, who no doubt will be very pleased to give Mr. Frog some more good chewing.

The Squirrel Game

Yesterday morning I took a double lap around Schiller Park.  It was a bright, sunny morning, and lots of neighborhood dogs had brought their human pals to the park for a romp through the bright green grass.  Many of the dogs were off the leash.  That meant I got to watch some of the Squirrel Game.

For those not familiar with it, the Squirrel Game is played at Schiller Park on any sunny day.  The contestants are dogs and squirrels.  The squirrels venture out onto the grass.  The dogs see the squirrels and then take off in hopes of actually catching one of the furry critters.  The squirrels see the dogs coming and easily make it back to the safety of the trees, sit on a tree branch, and then taunt the dogs with a death stare like you might see in the NBA after one player posterizes another with a particularly nasty dunk.  

I would be willing to bet that, in the  storied history of Schiller Park, no dog has ever actually caught a healthy adult squirrel.  Nevertheless, their DNA compels the canines to keep trying, not matter what — which makes the Squirrel Game pretty entertaining to watch.  In fact, with people suffering from severe sports deprivation these days, what if there were a live broadcast of the Squirrel Game to help fans try to scratch that sports itch?

Play-by-play announcer:  Welcome to Schiller Park in Columbus, Ohio, for week three of the Squirrel Game!  It’s a beautiful day for squirrel chasing, and we’ve got a full slate of contestants ready to engage in a fruitless interspecies exercise.  Jim, do you think that this just might be the week where a dog actually catches a squirrel?

Color guy:  Not a chance, Frank!  But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a bunch of representatives of man’s best friend who don’t believe that this will definitely be the day when they actually catch a squirrel, and they are willing to run themselves into panting exhaustion in hopes that their dreams will be realized.

Play-by-play announcer:  Well, hope springs eternal!  And we’ve got our first contestants ready to go.  Bosco and Skippy have moved away from their tree out onto the grass, and Missy, an overly groomed Shih Tzu wearing an embarrassing pink bow in her fur, has just been let off the leash by her human.

Color guy:  Our audience will remember Bosco, of course.  Like every squirrel in the park, he’s never been caught or even put into remote physical peril by the neighborhood dogs, but Bosco is a crowd favorite because of his exceptional taunting moves.  He’s been training Skippy, so we’ll get a chance to see how that is going.

Play-by-play announcer:  The squirrels have moved pretty far away from their tree to give Missy extra hope.  Bosco has dug up some kind of nut and is munching away on it, while Skippy is twitching her tail, hoping to attract Missy’s attention.  That’s one of Bosco’s patented moves, and it looks like Skippy has mastered it.  Wait a minute — I think Missy has seen them!  Yes, and she’s taken off!  Here we go!

Color guy:  Really bad form by Missy, Frank!  She’s started running much too early, and she’s not very fast, anyway.  You’d think dogs would have learned by now that if you really want to catch a squirrel, you need to sneak up on them.

Play-by-play announcer:  Well, they are dogs, Jim.

Color guy:  Yes, they are, which is why they never have a chance but still happily try.  Bosco and Skippy have noticed Missy heading their way, and Bosco is calmly taking a few extra nibbles on that nut and waiting until the last minute, giving Missy even more hope that this might actually be the day that she catches a squirrel.  And Missy has taken the bait, and is running at top speed.  Look at that pink ribbon fly!

Play-by-play announcer:  That’s why Bosco is one of the true all-stars.  He always gives the dogs hope before crushing their expectations like a discarded soda can.

Color guy:  You’re right of course, Frank!  And now Bosco and Skippy are engaging in some very nifty broken-field running to get back to their tree.  Some great moves from the savvy veteran and the rookie there!

Play-by-play announcer:  They’ve easily made it to the tree, leaving Missy back in the dust.  And now Missy has finally reached the tree trunk and is yapping and acting like she’s protected the human world from the scourge of the squirrel menace.

Color guy:  You’ve got to give Missy credit for trying to put a happy face on a pretty dismal effort, Frank!  She didn’t even come close, not by a long shot, but her posturing and irritating yapping shows she’s a real pro.  

Play-by-play announcer:  Bosco has caught Missy’s attention again, and is giving her that famous Bosco stare.  Jim, I’ve seen it countless times, and it still gives me chills.  And wait, Skippy is joining in!  A double stare!  And now Bosco is going back to munching on that nut, showing Missy and our viewing audience that he is totally undisturbed by the entire episode.  You’ve got to give him credit for showmanship!

Color guy:  Of course, Missy doesn’t realize she’s been dissed.  Being a dog, she’s pretty much oblivious to everything except the chase.  And now she’s trotting back to her human with a very self-satisfied air, having seemingly forgotten Bosco, Skippy and the entire embarrassing episode.

Play-by-play announcer:  Time for a commercial break.  When we return, we’ll be seeing Shultzie, a morbidly obese dachshund, try to catch Tinkles, a fan favorite with a white streak in her tail.

Color guy:  Ha ha!  I love to watch fat dachshunds try to run.  Don’t miss it, folks! 

Ready To Paddy

Kish and I got a laugh from this gaily attired concrete pooch found across from Schiller Park. The hound is eagerly anticipating St. Patrick’s Day next week, and who can blame her? With everything else that is going on, St. Patrick’s Day will be a most welcome relief. The pooch even looks a bit thirsty.

Whatever happens between now and then — and this old world sure has been full of surprises lately, hasn’t it? — when the day arrives to toast the Emerald aisle, I imagine everyone will be ready to paddy.

On The Leash

I suspect that our weekend morning walks around Schiller Park are a bit less enjoyable for Betty. 

On our weekday morning walks, which typically occur at around 6 a.m., there are, at most, one or two other dogs that we encounter, and often we see no other dogs at all. 

On our weekend morning walks, on the other hand, we walk a bit later, and usually there are lots of other dogs out — some walking, some playing fetch with their human pals, and some frolicking with other dogs.  Betty is always alert to the dogs that are running free, and I sometimes entertain the notion of letting her off the leash to roam a bit.  She’s not specifically trained for that, however, and I just don’t want to take the chance that she’s going to run off and get into some kind of trouble.  So I keep the leash on, and we walk forward instead.

The weekend walks get tougher when, as happened this morning, some thoughtless person lets an untrained dog loose and the dog charges up to every other dog in the park — including Betty.  It’s unnerving to have a canine of unknown provenance run up to you and your dog with uncertain intentions.  Most dogs are friendly and just want to do the sniff routine, but there have been incidents at Schiller Park where dogs have attacked each other and done some serious damage, to the horror of owners and bystanders.  That’s why the park has a policy that, if you can’t exercise immediate control over your dog by verbal commands, you need to keep the dog on a leash . . . period.  Since there aren’t a lot of verbal command dogs, that means most dogs should be kept on a leash.

But, what’s the social protocol for what to do when some irresponsible person ignores that common-sense rule?  In today’s encounter, the owner of the roaming dog was some older woman who didn’t seem at all troubled by her failure to follow the rules and the fact that her dog was misbehaving and racing up to every other dog in the park.  Should the leashed dog owner say something, or is that crossing an improper line?  I have no desire to lecture people on following the rules, but how else are the rules going to have an impact?

It makes me wish that some dog owners could be put on a leash, too. 

For The Demure Dog

Many airports now have animal relief areas.  Often, the areas are just a square of bright green astroturf out in some corner of the concourse with a plastic red fire hydrant.  Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport is the first airport I’ve seen where the animal relief zone is a separate room with a closing door.

I think it’s a good idea, and I hope that more airports adopt it.  Obviously, the room isn’t in deference to the privacy interests of dogs, who don’t seem to care much who can see them while they do their business — or where they do it, for that matter.  Instead, it’s a nod to the sensibilities of those of us who are traveling and don’t particularly want to see a squatting dog 50 feet away from where we’re sipping our Starbucks Cafe Grande and trying to tune out the blaring CNN broadcast from the TV sets overhead. 

More and more people are traveling with “comfort animals” these days, and the animals are coming in all shapes and sizes.  As I moved through the Phoenix airport yesterday, I saw more dogs than ever before, ranging in size from a Shih Tzu clutched by her human pal to a fully grown standard poodle striding down the concourse.  I’ve even read about passengers traveling with miniature horses as “comfort animals” — which seems to really push the “comfort animal” envelope and show just how blurry the lines have become.

With the undeniable increase in animals in airports, airport facilities need to change to keep pace with the trend — and obviously making sure that there are places where the “comfort animals” can take care of their own comfort has to be part of that process.  It shouldn’t be an issue, because airports always have plenty of space and seem to be under construction at all times — so why not a simple room to let dogs, cats, miniature horses, cockatoos, and the rest of the traveling menagerie answer the call of nature?  

Amazon Is Everywhere

The depth of Amazon’s penetration of American popular culture is pretty amazing.  Last week, for example, we needed some white cranberry juice to prepare a seasonal cocktail we were making for a gathering with friends.  Kish went to several grocery stores in Columbus and couldn’t find any.  We decided to give Amazon a try, and sure enough, it offered Ocean Spray white cranberry juice — which was delivered to our doorstep the next day, with no muss and no fuss.  Pretty convenient!

But I had no idea of the stunning breadth of Amazon’s business activities until I got a surprise while walking the dog.

In our neighborhood, there are a few strategically placed containers where dog owners can get free poop bags.  It’s a good idea for the neighborhood, because it gives dog owners no excuse but to clean up after their pooches, and it’s a blessing for the dog owners who otherwise might be caught short in the crucial bag department.  The bags had been made by anonymous companies and featured cartoon drawings of happy (and apparently relieved) dogs — until now.  I stopped by one of the containers last week, pulled out two of the plastic baggies so I would have a ready supply, and saw to my surprise as I was putting them into my back pocket that they were from AmazonBasics and featured the familiar swish/smile logo.  So, Amazon has now made crucial inroads into the German Village canine poop bag market.

It’s hard to imagine that poop bags are a very lucrative, high-margin item for a supplier, but I guess if you’re aiming to dominate the supply of every product Americans might need, poop bags are just another item on the list.  And the poop bag itself makes it clear that Amazon isn’t just looking at America, either — the bags I took feature the suffocation hazard warning in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese.

Achtung!  Amazon is everywhere!