In spite of everything that’s been going on I’ve been riding a lot. I’m actually kind of proud of that. Not that I don’t normally strive to ride every day that I can, but lately there’s been more than a few days where my get up and go got up and went. Sadness will do that to you. But yesterday was another two-horse day and both rides were quite good.
I’m working with a new (to me) trainer. I’m very please and excited about having access to her services, although I have to admit I’m suffering from some serious brain overload! But overload in a good way! Lots to think about before, during and after every ride. And Dharla is handing things well and responding nicely. I see a lot of “try” in her. I know I’m not always giving her the best support, yet she does her best. Yesterday we had some major background noise and distraction when our neighbor closest to our arena started clearing brush with industrial-sized equipment. They were nearby, but not visible, which normally would result in Dharla coming unglued. Fortunately, in our last lesson we also had a noisy, scary distraction that was out of sight, so I got an opportunity to work with Stephanie on how I could better manage Dharla’s energy in that kind of situation. I immediately went to work on circles, serpentines and some walk-trot transitions which put Dharla’s focus on me. In a matter of a few minutes we were back to working in a relaxed manner and all the crashing and shredding noise was forgotten.
Today we were distraction-free so I got to work on getting some nice relaxed bends in my circles. Dharla can get stiff and point her nose to the outside and I tend to collapse my inside shoulder, drop my gaze and tilt my head in the direction we’re circling. This morning I was able to focus on keeping my shoulders square, not collapsing to the inside and not tilting my head. (And looking UP) It’s a little like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, but I could immediately see how much better Dharla moved when I got the heck out of her way. Yay! I could feel when she gave her head nicely and was able to quickly reward her each time with a gentle release. I also did about ten or fifteen minutes of ground work before we started, which I think got her attention and focus more connected to me before I even got on her. I plan to continue with a bit of ground work prior to doing our ring work.
If the weather holds I’d like to try to do a trail ride tomorrow. All work and no play is no fun.
Its getting close to that time of year when I have to decide what I’m going to do for vegetable gardens. (Planting for my area is traditionally Memorial weekend) Last summer we had a horrible drought and I spent way too many hot, humid days dragging a heavy garden hose from bed to bed. At some point I found myself swearing through my dripping sweat that I was done with vegetable gardening for good. I reasoned that we have several veggie stands nearby and our town does a nice little farmer’s market every Saturday morning. I even visited the farmer’s market once to see what they might have and I discovered they sell most of what I usually plant. So I know I can get fresh veggies without having to invest in all those hot, buggy hours of toil.
Easier said than done! I love watching things grow. For some reason that whole process from seed to produce never fails to trip my trigger. So I say I might forego the vegetable garden this year, but the truth of that statement remains to be seen. The lure of our local nursery might call to me and I may cave, but I’m seriously kicking some alternative ideas around. I think this might be the summer to shake things up and do the opposite. It just might be a better fit!
When you lose a dog that had an enormous personality you have to expect a change in energy. I always knew Hazer’s persona dominated everything on our farm, but I never put any thought into what it would actually be like when he was gone. Oh sure, I let myself think about it those half gazillion times I was irked with him for one reason or another, but I never seriously considered the changes.
I spent the majority of last week trapped inside because it rained eight days in a row. I got a tad depressed, and several times I had to remind myself that things would get better once I could get outside and start working on projects in the yard and garden. It’s been said that keeping a routine helps ward off the blues, and staying “busy” does too. So when the weather improved and I was finally able to dig into my outside chores I was shocked to find I was more sad than ever.
Again, it’s not like I’m trying to dwell on the fact that Hazer is gone, rather, I’ve actually gotten to the point where I don’t think about him every waking minute of the day. But yesterday as I went about digging and trimming it occurred to me that I’m going to have to go through an entire year of seasonal changes before I can fully wrap my head around this loss. Because every season brought a different role that Hazer played. His personality was so large that he inserted himself into the middle of everything I did. In fact, just last week when I pulled my vacuum cleaner from the closet I hesitated, waiting for the scramble of nails as he dashed to grab the hose and give it a good shake. Every day I go through dozens of little moments like that, moments where I pause to do something with or for for a dog no longer there. Moments that feel empty and profoundly different.
Learning to do things without Hazer beside me is going to take time and a concerted effort to change my focus. I’m sorry to say that the first few weeks Hazer was gone I barely even noticed Gus and Nina. They drifted in and out of my peripheral vision, doing what they always did without any help from me. I’m paying more attention to them now, trying to get a fix on who they are without Hazer here to steal the limelight. Nina seems to be changing the most, which surprises me given how much Gus had to dodge Hazer’s propensity to pick on him. I thought Hazers absence would affect Gus the most, but it’s not.
Nina has always been her own dog; aloof to everyone but me and Velcro without being needy. She’s the perfect blend of “busy,” but with an “off” button, the kind of dog who takes good care of herself, avoids trouble and will do ANYTHING you ask her with no questions asked. Inside, she likes to be near, not on top of you, but I can’t leave with a room without her immediately following. Outside, Nina marches to the beat of her own drum. Sometimes she’ll hang out nearby, but it’s far more likely she’ll be off poking around the property. She’ll pop by every now and then to keep tabs on my whereabouts, but generally she’ll wander off out of sight. (She’ll come lickity-split if called.) And she’s happy to follow me out to the barn, but once there she’ll promptly part company to go off to do her own thing elsewhere. Nina is what I’d call an “independent” thinker: she’ll gladly take advisement from me, but if none is offered then she’ll figure out a way to entertain herself.
Since Hazer died Nina has become more “there” for me, especially outside. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find Nina has been sicking by me in the barn. Prior, she might have made a quick pass through the barn before going off to do something else. “OK, Mom’s here. I’ll just go poke around the stone wall or yard,” and off she’d go only to rejoin me when I was done. But now she’s actually planting herself out behind the barn right where Hazer used to lay to watch me pick the paddock and feed. Sometimes she scoots off for a few minutes, but she always comes right back. Her waiting doesn’t seem to be a fluke because I can tell she’s tuned into me. Every time I glance her way her eyes are on me, following my every move just like Hazer did. At first I thought Nina had an ulterior motive: She’s always been a living Hoover for any of the grain the horses dropped. But she’s not even trying to get to the leftovers. Apparently she’s just there waiting for me. Two months ago that never would have happened because Hazer always had my back.
Yesterday when I was out gardening I noticed that every time I looked up Nina was laying some fifteen or twenty yards away, watching. Granted, she’s not ten feet away like Hazer was, but she’s there instead of going off to do her own thing. That’s VERY unusual behavior for Nina and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Do dogs consciously choose to fill a role when another passes? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. I could explain this behavior by saying she’s twelve years old and not as active as she used to be, but that’s not true at all. Nina is twelve going on eight and what’s more, this behavior only started after Hazer died.
Don’t get me wrong: Nina is NOT Hazer. Even though she’s doing some of the things Hazer used to routinely do, she does them HER way not his. For example, when gardening with Hazer if I took a little “break” Hazer would move in and flop down beside me looking for some attention. Nina doesn’t do that. Instead, she keeps her distance or uses my breaks as an opportunity to go “off duty” and do her own thing. So the dance is different. It has it’s own rhythm and new steps that are unique to the dancers. And if you’re not careful that’s right where the sadness creeps in: your ear hears an old favorite song, your eyes see your old dance partner. You don’t intend to go there, but you do. Old habits die hard.
It’s a struggle not to see Hazer sitting somewhere nearby, just like he is in the photo above. I thought summer would be easier, but I’ve come to realize it will be rife with memories and habits that are going to be tough to break. Sometimes I’m OK with it, but more often than not this sadness sucks the joy right out of whatever I’m doing. I know this too shall pass, but I don’t know when. Until then I’ll just keep trying to give myself over to the change in our dynamics, knowing that eventually this new will become the norm.
I feel like I should be starting to act more like myself: Less grief, more …. well, less grief? It’s not that I don’t feel happy. Sometimes I do. Gus will do something that makes me burst out laughing or I’ll smile when one of the horses nickers for green grass. (They’ve been getting SO pushy about grazing!) I’m excited things are starting to blossom outdoors and in spite of the chilly temps, last week I saw my fist humming birds. That always makes me giddy. But the truth of the matter is, I’m still battling daily bouts of the blues.
It’s not like I go around looking for all the ways I can miss my dog. I don’t. But so often I’ll start to do something or I’ll be smack dab in the middle of something when it hits me: Hazer always used to do X, Y, Z every time I did this. When you live with a quirky dog you develop a lot of odd habits. For example, Hazer always used to want to drink out of the narrow opening of my garden watering can. He’d come trotting over every single time I filled it and wait patiently for me to turn the spigot off before tilting his head sideways (that’s the only way his head would fit under the handle) to get a drink. Gus caught on to that game, but Hazer always got first dibs. For a dog who really didn’t like water, Hazer loved drinking out of my watering can. Every. Single. Time.
Hazer also licked the rugs obsessively. For some reason this activity soothed him, especially in the evening when we would watch TV. His licking kind of drove me nuts, and over the course of a few years he ruined one of my large wool braid rugs by constantly gravitating to the same place. He didn’t limit his licking to the living room either; he also licked the office rug and a small bedroom area rug. I wonder how many times over the course of his lifetime Hazer heard me say, “Hazer! Knock it off!” When I said that he’d always pause. Sometimes the licking would stop just for a moment, other times he’d quit for the night. I was never sure which was the worse of two evils: Hazer licking or Hazer stressed because I’d told him not to lick. Both had the tendency to be annoying.
I’ve posted pictures of Hazer laying on various pieces of furniture, but he wasn’t the kind of dog who wanted to share your space. He never got up on the couch or a chair unless it was unoccupied at the time, and if you decided to sit down next to him he’d quickly vacate his spot. In all the years I had him Hazer rarely got up on the bed with me. As he aged he started to lay on my bed when I wasn’t home, but I only knew this because I’d hear the thud of him jumping off the bed the minute I walked in the door. Mostly, Hazer was known for sleeping in odd positions: upside down, flipped backwards against a wall and my personal favorite, with a pilfered shoe.
The only time Hazer ever came close to wanting to share my space was when we went somewhere in the car. Hazer would jump in the back of the Subaru and stand with his front feet on the narrow console between the seats. If he was feeling really affectionate he’d even go so far as to rest his chin on my right shoulder. That always made my heart melt and the sweetness of those rare, shared moments in the car almost made up for a lifetime of avoiding any outward sign of affection. Almost. I’d never owned a dog who guarded his affection like it was a resource with an expiration date. To say I struggled to adjust to Hazer’s aloofness is an understatement, and between that and his overpowering sense of seriousness, I learned to cherish this singular display of love.
Hazer was an unashamed, confirmed counter-surfer. He’d step away from the counter the minute I told him to knock it off, but I couldn’t trust him for a second if there was something edible or interesting anywhere near the edge of the kitchen counter. It seems really odd now, to leave a dinner plate sitting on the counter and know it’s not in any danger of losing half it’s contents the second I’m out of sight. Hazer was also a shameless paper-eater. Drop your napkin (which my hubby did just about every night) and it would get snarfed up and swallowed in a heartbeat. The paper towel and Kleenex always came out the other end, as was often confirmed during reconnaissance missions prior to lawn mowing. Sadly, like the year-round tufts of red undercoat, all tell-tale evidence of this quirky habit have now vanished from our yard.
Every couple of days I reach into my kitchen closet and pull out a couple of toys for Nina and Gus to beat up. Hazer always had HIS special toys that none of the other dogs were allowed to share. Now when I see those toys I’m not really sure what to do. His Cuz. His stuffy. His personal squeaky toy; they still cause me to tear up. I’m not ready to let the other two dogs have them yet. For some strange reason that feels disloyal. What do you do with a dog’s personal effects? Their bed. Their food bowl. Their special blanket. I haven’t figured any of this out yet. I gathered up all Hazer’s beds. Yes, plural, because Hazer had a “thing” about beds. Every time I bought a new bed Hazer quickly claimed it as his own. To solve that problem, every room in the house had multiple beds. That way Nina and Gus could choose from whatever Hazer decided to ignore that day. Don’t laugh, it worked. I learned to pick my battles.
Hazer taught me more about failure than anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. I failed at everything I tried to do with him, sometimes over and over again. I remember the early anger and frustration that (eventually) morphed into humor at being out-witted by my dog. All of my previous dogs had been wonderful all-rounders. By that I mean they were multi-use dogs, capable of easing gracefully from one situation to another. They got along well with people and they were more than happy to be around other animals and dogs. But Hazer wanted none of that. While Hazer never met a person he didn’t like, he harbored a life-long dislike of all other canines, including (at times) his own housemates. I can say with some certainty that nothing creates better handling skills than a dog who can’t be trusted not to fight in his own home.
No matter what their breed or temperament, all dogs have their own special talent. I don’t mean they’re great at herding, obedience or agility. I mean they have a unique personality trait that benefits you in some particular way. Some are great comforters who want to cuddle when you’re blue, or some are great listeners who solemnly guard your secrets and dreams. Others are clowns who entertain us and make us laugh, while there are the ones whose presence makes us feel safe and secure. Each and every dog has their own unique and special gift to share with us. Some even have more than one. But sometimes we get so caught up in the rituals of creating good, obedient and talented dogs that we forget to give them enough space to let their skills shine. I made this mistake with Hazer and I regret that it took several years before I relaxed my grip enough to really see his strength. Hazer’s gift, his greatest talent, was simply being with me.
Hazer wanted nothing more than to be by my side. You’d think I’d have known that since ACDs tend to be a quirky mixture of independence and Velcro, but I had a hard time coming to terms with Hazer’s idea of a good time. Hazer wanted to do stuff as long as he could do it HIS way, but mostly he wanted to do stuff to be with me. Unfortunately, I set my sights on making my dog a performance dog, and right from the start I set goals and created a general game plan to move us in that direction. Problem was, Hazer wasn’t particularly interested in performing. Oh, he was more than willing to do just about any task I asked, but he didn’t really love performing for performance sake. I can clearly recall his look of frustration the second or third time I sent him over the A-frame. Been there, done that. Next? He was bored to death, which usually morphed into trying to find a classmate to threaten.
When I changed tracks and got Hazer into herding he was a much happier camper. There, he could do something he truly enjoyed while working with me. From Hazer’s point of view that was the best of both worlds. Herding improved his responsiveness and intuition on our own farm and I’m fairly convinced it helped us fine-tune our connection. Unfortunately, we came to herding later in life and because of the rough nature of the sport I decided to “retire” Hazer after a couple of years. But the benefits from herding stuck and I wound up with a dog who wanted nothing more than to be the perfect farm dog. After that Hazer was by my side for every trip to the barn, where he’d calmly park himself in the hay and wait until it was time to go in or time to go do something else.
So it would make sense I guess that I’m feeling the loss of Hazer most as I go about my regular chores and daily routine. I’ll always miss the quirky stuff Hazer did, the oddities that made his personality so unique, but mostly I miss his physical presence. When I’m ready to leave the barn my eye still travels to where he used to lay and wait. And halfway back to the house I automatically turn to see where he is. My body and mind still register him as there, even though he’s not. I don’t know how long it will take for reality to catch up and replace habit, but I’m torn between wanting that to happen and hoping it never will.
A few years ago I started a new ritual. Since Hazer wasn’t particularly inclined to show or return affection I decided I would risk humiliating him and do it anyway. I’d cup his handsome muzzle in my hands, plant a kiss on his head and pronounce my undying love for him. Hazer’s typical reaction to any kind of emotional display was to stare at me with disgust, feign surprise or growl. He was like an adolescent child who despised any outward display of parental affection. Naturally, this made me want to do it all the more. And so I did. Several times a day I’d pause to tell Hazer all the ways I adored him. And after awhile it seemed like he stopped hating the attention and he started to look more smug than annoyed. “Yes, my mom thinks I’m great. She says I’m her favorite red dog. Says I’m the most handsomest dog ever. Says I’m her best bud.” I’d like to think Hazer understood. If not the message, then maybe the sentiment behind the words. Because the truth is, he was all that and so much more.