April 28, 2010

It’s hard to type when adrenalin is flooding your system. Know what it’s even harder to do? Catch a rattlesnake. Yes, warm weather in my part of town means the rattlesnakes are out and about, looking for love and little furry things to eat. Ironically, my husband and I recently spent the better part of three weekends attaching “snake fencing” to the chain link that makes up the perimeter of what is effectively a huge dog run for Sierra in back of the house. We thought we’d done a decent job—that is, until this afternoon.

I’d just gotten ready to go down to the wolf pen to give the old lady wolf her afternoon snack of hot dogs. (Tea, the old lady wolf, is another story.) Normally Sierra would be giving me that “you know you want to share those” look. But I could only see the back half of her, as she had the front part of her body stuck outside the dog door. She was standing stock still. Normally that pose means she’s spied a lizard (and the lizard should probably get its affairs in order). Leaving her on lizard watch, I tossed a few pieces of hot dog into her dish and headed downstairs. When I returned, the hot dogs were still there. Okay, that was not normal. I could still see the back of her body stuck in the dog door. She was still standing right where I’d left her, frozen, focused on something—only now I could see what it was, and it bigger than a lizard. A lot bigger. The rattlesnake was slithering around just inside the fencing we’d put up. Apparently he knew a thing or two more about the ins and outs of snake fencing than we do. I grabbed the snake tongs and the bag-on-a-pole that we keep on hand for such occasions and, locking Sierra securely inside, headed out.

I’d tonged a rattlesnake once before back when Phantom, my last remaining wolf, was alive. It had been in the enclosure with him, he was freaking out, and I’d really had no choice. I figured I could do it again. But that one had been lying there, docile, facing away from me. This one was facing me, and if snakes had fingers, it was pretty clear which one was raised in my direction. Oookeee. I had to rethink this. I wasn’t really sure I could tong the snake around the neck without getting bit, plus the snake was so thick and heavy—roughly five to six feet long—that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to lift it with one arm and maneuver it safely into the bag I’d have to hold with the other arm.

I went back inside the house and called my husband at work, and asked him to get home as quickly as possible. I then called Hugo, our local snake wrangler and my personal hero. Hugo is a local teacher who loves snakes of all kinds. He’s been out to our house four times previously, three times to pick up a rattlesnake, and once for a Mojave Green, which is even more dangerous. Hugo’s great. If you can contain or capture a rattlesnake, Hugo will come and pick it up, take it home and make sure it’s hydrated, then release it in a largely unpopulated area roughly fifteen miles from our home. Someone told me he also feeds the snake a meal before he releases it, since the snake will need some time to adjust to its new environs, and being full is means it won’t have to eat for a while. Thoughtful guy, that Hugo.

I kept an eye on the snake from inside the kitchen door and counted the minutes until my husband would arrive. Each time the rattler started to leave the little area it was slithering around in, I’d go outside and aim a tong in its direction so it would slither back again. Each time I did that, Sierra would jump up on the dog door and whine frantically. I could just about see the thought bubble over her head: Are you insane? Get back in here! A very long twenty minutes later, my husband pulled up. He grabbed the tongs and bag and we walked outside together, having decided that I’d hold the bag while he tonged the snake and dropped it in. The thing was, by this time the snake was really nervous and more than a little agitated. That made two of us. I suggested we wait for Hugo. As we were discussing how long that might be, like a knight in shining armor—or a once-shiny pickup truck—Hugo drove up. He grabbed a few sizes of plastic buckets with spin-tight tops and his own snake hook, and strode confidently to the area the snake had claimed as his.

Sierra and I watched from inside as my husband stood outside watching Hugo do his thing. I can’t tell you the relief I felt as I saw Hugo expertly navigate the area around the snake, tong it, and drop it into the plastic bin. In fact, I was briefly calm enough to grab my iphone and take a brief video clip—through the window—of the capture. The two men looked down at the snake in the plastic bin and chatted for a bit, and I heard Hugo comment that it was one of the biggest rattlers he’s seen this year. Sierra and I looked at each other and wondered what they were thinking, standing so close to that thing. Finally the spin top was securely in place and Hugo left for his next call, a neighbor fifteen minutes up the road who has a gibbon compound, and apparently also has an unwelcome slithering visitor.

It’s not the first time Sierra has been exposed to a rattlesnake (see my previous blog), but hopefully it will be the last. The good news is that she seems to have a natural fear of them, as evidenced by her behavior today as well as the last time, when she heard the rattle from under some plywood and jumped back five feet. I don’t blame people who take their dogs to rattlesnake avoidance training. You can be as anti shock collar as you want, but when it comes to this particular life and death issue, I’m all for the avoidance training. In fact, I’m all for avoidance, period! I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another rattlesnake up close and personal. It’s going to be a long summer.


Away from Home

April 10, 2010

There seem to be Murphy’s Laws that apply specifically to dogs. One is that if your dog is going to become ill or have some sort of accident, it’ll happen on a weekend or holiday when your vet is closed. Another is that bad things may happen to your dog when you’re away from home. For years, I dreaded going off to teach a seminar when Mojo was in his older years, because more often that not, it seemed some emergency would take place while I was gone. Fortunately, my husband had been home to care for him, but still—I developed an almost superstitious dread of leaving town.

Yesterday was the first time I’ve had to get on a plane since we adopted Sierra. The thought crossed my mind that I hoped she’d be okay, but she’s a young, healthy dog so I dismissed the worry….that is, until I spoke to my husband on the phone last night. Any conversation that starts with, “We had a little excitement around here today,” does not bode well. After my panicked questions about whether he and Sierra were okay, he told me what had happened.

First I should explain that in back of our house sit a few storage sheds, plus an area of wooden pallets with plywood tops that had been erected to cover an area prone to getting muddy during storms. The storage shed and the pallets seem to serve as vacation homes for a variety of creatures, from rodents to squirrels, and, most recently, a family of bunnies. Sierra, being the hunter that she is, races out the dog door and over to the wooden pallets on a regular basis, sticking her nose under the wood to sniff for bunnies. It’s a constant source of interest and entertainment for her.

Yesterday my husband had gone out back, and Sierra had raced out ahead of him. She ran over to the wooden pallets, stuck her nose down low—and jumped backward five feet! My husband went over to see what had scared her, and when he approached the pallets, he heard that distinctive rattle you never forget once you’ve seen what’s attached to it. He raced over to Sierra to see whether she’d been bitten. Her heart was pounding hard and fast. He put her back in the house and fetched the snake tongs we’d purchased a few years before. As it turned out, he had to unscrew the plywood from the tops of three of the four panels before he could locate the snake. It was a nerve-wracking process, as you might imagine. But he tonged the snake, and placed him in the recycling bin we use for these occasions. He then called Hugo, our local friendly snake lover who picks the rattlesnakes up and sets them free in non-populated areas.

Sitting in my St. Louis hotel room, just hearing about the incident got my heart racing. I’ve had to tong rattlesnakes before (the first had gotten in the pen with Phantom, my last remaining wolf, a few years ago), and it’s a frightening experience. But more so, I thought of how much worse it could have been for Sierra. Ironically, we’ve been spending our weekends putting up snake fencing; we’re about 2/3 of the way finished.

Because of the prevalence of rattlesnakes in our area, I’d been considering taking Sierra to a snake avoidance clinic. This is one of the only uses of an e-collar I’d ever consider. As much as I hate the idea, we’re talking life and death. But now I know she’s got a definite instinctual fear of rattlesnakes, just like Phantom did. And while that makes me feel a whole lot better, it’s going to be one long summer.

Sheep Herding? Baaah!

April 5, 2010

Let me start out by admitting I’m no Little Bo Peep. Sure, I’ve herded cockroaches out of a Brooklyn apartment, but sheep? Not. Fortunately, this isn’t about me—it’s about Sierra. It was her behavior at the dog park that led me to believe she might have herding instincts. Often, as a dog waited inside the double-gated entrance for the owner to remove the leash—especially a friend like Jack the husky or Cleo the Dalmatian—Sierra would lie perfectly still like a border collie, watching and waiting, then spring up and run over to pounce on the other dog in greeting. And whenever a group of dogs would get to racing madly around the park’s large inner perimeter, there was Sierra, lightning fast, curving around the outside of the pack—surely a herding behavior, right?

My friend Laura had taken her own mixed breed dogs to a woman named Judy for herding lessons. Laura spoke very highly of Judy’s skill and instructional prowess, but also of her kindness to students both four-legged and two. As my Jeep Cherokee followed Laura’s truck up the narrow, winding mountain road, I wondered what Judy would think of Sierra. I had visions of her proclaiming, “She’s got herding instincts, alright! That’s a natural if I ever saw one!”

Upon seeing Sierra, Judy asked what breed she was. I asked what she thought she looked like. Without hesitation, Judy said, “She looks like a wolf.” I explained that we’d just gotten Sierra’s DNA test results back, and for what it was worth, she’s allegedly a mix of malamute, husky, and keeshond. I wondered what the sheep would think, and silently gave Judy a lot of credit for even allowing us to try the “instinct test.”

Like any good instructor, Judy first took the time to make friends with my dog. She stood with Sierra in a pen containing three sheep, stroking her and talking to her gently. Judy then led her on leash to walk around the pen behind the sheep, maintaining a safe distance. I’m no expert in sheep behavior, but the sheep seemed scared. Really scared.

“Sheep tell you a lot of things about the dog,” Judy said calmly. “These sheep are deathly afraid of her.”

“Is that normal with a new dog?” I asked.

“No. It’s different with every dog. But look at her. Again, she could be coyote, she could be anything. There’s coyotes up here that come and sniff through the fence. So you gotta think like a sheep.”

I might not be able to think like a sheep, but I could see how Sierra might look like she’s got a little something wild in her.

While I couldn’t argue with the sheep’s assessment, Sierra looked a bit worried about them, too. And when she wasn’t busy worrying about the sheep, her nose was on the ground, busily sniffing out every piece of poop she could find. And eating it. Perhaps this was her technique for conveying to the sheep that she was not a threat. See? I eat your poop! I would never harm you! The sheep did not look convinced.

(Here’s a short clip of Sierra in the arena with Judy and the three sheep. The sheep had calmed down a bit, but you can see one stamping when they’re in the corner.)

Judy kept walking Sierra around the pen, and once she felt assured that Sierra was not going to go after the sheep, she let her off leash. Sierra kept right on looking for poop. After a while, I called from the sidelines, “Uh…I guess she really doesn’t have much of an instinct for this, does she.” Judy said kindly, “Oh, I wouldn’t count her out. You’re welcome to bring her back up sometime and try again. A lot of dogs are a little scared, but all of those behaviors, all that poop eating, that’s because she’s afraid.” Although sniffing definitely can be a stress-relieving behavior in dogs, and Sierra was a bit nervous, I’m pretty sure she’d eaten the poop because it was there. On hikes, her nose is constantly on the ground, and anything that smells like a critter sends her into an ecstatic trance. The sheep pen might as well have had a sign over it proclaiming it “Doggie Disneyland.”

Undeterred, Judy brought more sheep into the arena. Maybe now that their numbers had been doubled, their fear would be halved. She asked me to come in, too. Now I was nervous. Laura had related a story earlier about how a bunch of sheep had once pinned her to the wall, and she’d been calling and calling to her dog to come and move them. Apparently, sheep aren’t so easy to move if you don’t have four feet and a tail. But in I went. Judy had wanted me in there because she thought it would give Sierra more confidence. Although the sheep seemed calmer than before, it became obvious that Sierra was still more interested in their excretory product than in the sheep themselves. Finally, raising the white wooly flag of defeat, we left the arena. A sheep in the next pen over, who no doubt had been amused by the whole debacle, pronounced very clearly, “Baaah!” I had to agree.

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