Rattling the Cage

IMG_2837Confession: I’ve obviously fallen a bit behind on my dog blogging. We’ve now had Slider for more than two months, but this is a story from our first week with him.

When we met Slider at his foster family’s house, they shared that he was having some trouble with house-breaking. The couple would routinely wake up in the morning to not-so-special surprises. But a couple of weeks later, they emailed to say the problem was solved: They’d started keeping Slider in his crate at night, as well as when they were away during the day, and voila.

We had already been planning to crate train our dog. All of Rachael’s greyhound rearing books recommended crate training as a way to set boundaries and to acclimate a dog to a new home. So having him sleep in the cage didn’t seem like a huge deal.

Wrong.

Slider’s first night with us was a Friday, which was good, because we got so little sleep, work the next day would have been killer. At first, Slider seemed fine with the crate. We set it up in the kitchen, and shut him in there for a few minutes at a time while we watched TV. He walked in without objection and seemed comfortable inside, lounging on the bed we’d bought online. But when we shut him in there for the night, as soon as we went upstairs, he began to cry.

This was no little whine. This was a full-on, high-pitched wail. It was the sort of noise a person might make if they got an unexpected call in the middle of the day that their mother had been hit by a bus. Or maybe the sort of noise you would make after nine hours of torture in a Syrian prison.

He cried and cried. Pretty soon, Rachael looked on the verge of tears, too. Logic seemed to indicate that if we gave in and went down to get him, we’d simply be rewarding him for crying and reinforcing the behavior. On the other hand, it was such a terrible noise, and any sense of human decency seemed to require taking mercy on the poor pup.

Indecisive, we let him cry for about 45 minutes, which felt like 45 years, before running to his rescue. Rachael took him outside to pee, and the minute he came back in the house, he bolted up the stairs. Defeated and exhausted, we carried the crate up and put it in the hallway outside our bedroom. With much coaxing, we lured Slider back inside, but he kept whining on and off. When he wasn’t crying, he was rattling around, uncomfortable. He didn’t sleep much, and we didn’t sleep at all.

On the second night, we started with the crate out in the hallway, but the histrionics resumed, and we again moved the cage, this time into the bedroom. Finally, Slider seemed comfortable, and all three of us got some much-needed sleep.

The adventure was far from over. Rachael worked from home on Monday, but on Tuesday, it was time to leave Slider home alone in the crate. Over the weekend, we made half-hearted attempts to help him build up to being by himself, but the best we managed was to put him in the crate, leave the room, shut the door, and wait about five minutes, until he again began to whine. Even that required a good deal of effort and a great many treats.

Tuesday morning, we latched the door on the crate and tried to sneak out of the house quietly. Before we had even reached the back door, he was whining. Over the next few days, Rachael would go in late and leave work early, and I came home at lunch, but it was clear Slider was miserable being left alone in his cage. At night, he happily slept in the cage with us in the bed nearby, but any time we left, he freaked. Neighbors on both sides made comments about all the noise.

And we started to suspect that Slider was planning an escape.

The horizontal bars below the door showed signs of abuse, twisted with tooth marks. One day they were bent some, the next they were bent more. At night, I’d push them back into place, but Slider would push them right back, and then some. Soon, both of those bars had been snapped off on one end. They didn’t seem essential, so we just left them hanging there. The door would still close—barely—though the whole thing looked warped. We worried that Slider might hurt himself doing battle with the crate, but he didn’t seem any worse for wear. Rachael inspected his gums and teeth, but neither seemed sore.

Then one day, about a week after Slider moved in with us, Rachael came home to a surprise. Our greyhound greeted her at the back door. He’d ripped the whole front end of the crate apart, then somehow squeezed his way out through an unbelievably narrow opening.

At that point, we figured Slider had won his freedom. The busted crate went into the dumpster.

Slider, God help us all, was about to have free rein.

World’s Fastest Couch Potato

photoWhen I tell friends, co-workers, and strangers that I own a greyhound—and time flies: Slider’s been living in our house for more than a month now—they usually ask some version of the same misguided question.

“Isn’t that a lot of work?” or “Do you have to take him for a lot of walks?” or “How do you keep up with him?”

What these people don’t know is that greyhounds are like skinny, canine versions of Charles Barkley.

The Round Mound of Rebound and Slider both had long careers as professional athletes. And while they both like sports well enough, what they really love is eating and chilling. If you’ve seen Barkley’s retirement waistline, you’ve probably thought to yourself, “There’s a guy who eats pizza while sitting in a recliner.” Slider would like nothing more than to rewrite the laws of the universe to make it possible to scarf kibble and take a nap at the same time. And just like being Barkley’s roommate wouldn’t require a person to play in the NBA, living with Slider doesn’t mean we suddenly need to run 45 MPH.

As I mentioned in a previous post (and again in the headline), greyhounds are often called “the world’s fastest couch potatoes.” The description couldn’t be more apt. The day we adopted Slider, we took him into our small back yard, to let him explore his new turf. He nosed around for a minute or two, then flopped down in the grass. We brought him inside, sat down in the living room, and he plopped right back down. He’s hardly left that position since.

Slider is what some people call a magnet dog—he never wants to leave our sides, following us around as if pulled by an invisible force. Every time I get up to go to the kitchen, you can see the inner monologue playing out on his face. He wants to follow, but that would mean standing up. He’d have to leave his bed. Is it really worth it? Eventually, he’ll slowly peel himself off the floor, pausing for a big stretch. By the time he catches up to me, I’m usually headed straight back to the living room, beverage in hand, but he never seems to figure out that if he lets me go, I might return.

If you know Rachael, you’re probably aware that she’s world-class at napping through football games, but even she can’t keep up with Slider. On a Sunday a few weeks ago, he snoozed right through a Rams game and then a Cardinals game, back to back.

There are basically three situations in which Slider’s energy meter perks up above zero. At his twice daily meal times, he throws back kibble like it will all disappear if he doesn’t finish the bowl within 30 seconds. When his humans return home from work, he celebrates enthusiastically, prancing and wagging his tail. He gets so excited, he starts snorting and sneezing. If you’re unfamiliar with his mannerisms, you might think he’s about to bite you, though he’s really just smiling.

Then, maybe once per day, he gets a case of what greyhound owners call “the zoomies.” He’s struck with a sudden burst of energy and wants to run—fast. Inside, this means flying across our wood floor, skidding to a stop, throwing his toys 10 feet in the air, then sprinting back the other direction. Outside, he races figure eights around our cars and leaps up the deck steps in a single impressive bound. Even better is when we take him to visit friends’ who have bigger back yards, where he can literally run circles around other dogs. These bursts tend to last just a few minutes, not much longer than his races at the track. Then he goes right back to looking for a place to lie down.

We do take Slider for a lot of long walks, but that’s just because we like to go for a lot of long walks.

Run, Slider, Run

photo-2

Once we decided to adopt Slider, we had to wait a couple of weeks before bringing him home. I decided to spend the time researching his racing career.

After Googling around aimlessly for a while, I ended up on a website called Track Info, which aggregates results from various animal races. (Well, really just greyhounds and horses.) In the greyhound section, there’s a dog search. I typed in Electric Slide, and his racing history popped right up.

At first, I couldn’t make any sense of the racing results, row after row of gibberish. I deduced that Slider’s whelp date was his birthday: September 18, 2009, exactly one year before Rachael and I got married. A dog born on our anniversary? Maybe this was meant to be.

I discovered that his father was Flying Penske, the Wilt Chamberlain of greyhounds, who according to the site has a mind-boggling 8,159 children. Slider’s mother, Eye Oh Wah, was much more responsible, birthing just 32 pups. Some of Slider’s brothers and sisters had names like Eat My Dust and Instant Winner and Track Super Star. I can imagine the sibling rivalry was intense.

Much of the racing info on the site still confounds me, but I was able to decipher a few things. The first column on the left, obviously, is the date of the race. Slider’s first race was in June 2011. He finished third. His last race was just this past June. He came in seventh. Most of the races include eight dogs.

In between, Slider ran about 150 races, one every few days. Most were held at Southland Park, a casino and greyhound-racing venue in West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee. The first few races of his career, though, came at Mystique Casino in Dubuque, Iowa.

In the center of the list of results is a series of bold columns. The one on the far right is Slider’s time in that race, usually around 40 seconds. The distance is most often 703 yards. That means his average speed was usually around 35 miles per hour, though greyhounds can top out at more like 45. They’re among the fastest land animals, behind cheetahs and not much else.

To the left of the time is how far Slider finished behind the leader, and the number to the left of that is where he placed. (The shorthand text to the right of the time also indicates how he fared.) By my quick tally, Slider won 13 races and finished second another 20 times or so. (There’s also a grade system, with A races and B races and so on, but I won’t bore you with those details.) He wasn’t a grand champion, but he held his own.

Best of all, the site has video of each race. I have to admit, in those weeks before we brought Slider home, I already felt a strong bond with him, just from watching him win races. When he crossed the finish line first, I felt an irrational sense of pride, as if I were somehow connected to his success.

The races at Southland all follow a similar format: The dogs begin in a starting box. A siren blares, and then without fail, the announcer always says, “Rusty’s on the move!” A mechanical rabbit then comes shooting past along the inside rail. “Here comes Rusty.” A split second after the rabbit passes, the doors of the box flip up and the dogs coming charging out. “They’re off and racing!”

Greyhounds at a full sprint are a sight to behold. Their strides are impossibly long. The dogs go from a crunched position to completely sprawled out in a split second. In both positions, they hover above the ground, all four legs floating on air.

In Slider’s wins, he tends to start out in the middle of the pack, then come charging forward at the end. In his final win, on May 12, he emerged from the pack at the final turn (in the video, look for dog No. 2). The announcer refers to him as a “crafty veteran.” His first win came in his second career race, a Grade E matinee, at the track in Iowa. There, they say the mechanical rabbit is “rolling by the river.” In a green-striped No. 7 jersey, Slider gets pushed outside early and falls behind, but he makes a move through traffic around the far turn, and pulls away down the stretch, clearly outclassing his competition.

My favorite of Slider’s wins came on June 29, 2012, during the best stretch of his career. It’s a nighttime race, which I think adds to the atmosphere. Wearing No. 4, he gets off to a slow start. Quickly, he falls  back into fifth place, so far behind the leaders that at some points, he’s not even in the view of the camera. But midway through, he makes a move on the inside, pulling into third, then second. As they enter the home stretch, he’s still probably two or three lengths behind.

Then he puts his head down, kicks up dirt… “Four cranking it up!” the announcer yells. “Electric Slide! At the wire!” He wins by a nose.

Yep, that’s a pet I can get behind.

Why This Greyhound

10649531_10102534790621230_4984072324574030157_n

So we decided to get a greyhound. I explained our reasoning at length in my last post, but in case you missed it, here’s the quick version: I liked greyhounds because they bark, shed, jump, and lick less than most other dogs. Rachael was on board because she and greyhounds have the same favorite hobbies—cuddling and sleeping.

Once we settled on a breed, the next step was to meet some dogs. We started in late August by making the drive west to Purina Farms for Pet-a-Palooza. Given the tenuous nature of my newfound openness to pets, Rachael was taking a major risk, dragging me 40 minutes from home to a giant convention hall full of weird dog people and their mongrels. The main building was divided into two sections. The smaller one was an agility course, where people learned, much to their pleasant surprise, that even the dumbest dogs can be made to walk over a small wooden bridge. The other side was a maze of booths set up by adoption groups and every type of pet-related business you can imagine.

While I tried desperately to avoid being licked or peed on, even Rachael was starting to feel overwhelmed by the number of canines all around us. If the dogs had wanted to stage a mutiny, we would have all been goners, especially since seemingly 99 percent of adoptable dogs in St. Louis are pit bulls.

We made our way to the Rescued Racers table, where a pack of greyhounds was waiting to let us scratch them behind the ears. Most of the dogs already had owners, but a couple were available. One, Carl, seemed like an energetic guy, but when we told his foster father that we would be first-time dog owners, he politely suggested that we might want to consider a different dog. My memory is a bit hazy on the specifics, and I’d hate to defame Carl, but I seem to remember that he was chewing things and ruining furniture and that sort of thing. Very undude.

Next, we met Skippy. People sometimes refer to greyhounds as “magnet dogs,” because they stick so closely to their human companions. Skippy, who seemed to be just as intimidated by this event as we were, wrapped herself around and between our legs, leaning hard against us. It was a good first impression. According to her foster family, Skippy had no problems with house-training, didn’t mind spending daytime hours in a crate, and was a generally cool dog, though she would pretty much kill anything that got between her and her food bowl.

Afterward, we made arrangements for a one-on-one meeting with Skippy. We also set up meetings with dogs named April and Slider. (Retired racing greyhounds have two names: their official race name, used mostly for betting and announcing purposes, and then a nickname that they’re called by at the kennel. The names given here are of the latter variety.)

Up first was Slider. I had some initial misgivings. When we arrived at his foster family’s home, he freaked out, licking my hands and running around, which was not at all the energy level I was expecting from “the world’s fastest couch potatoes.” I thought he was going to bite me, but they told me that he was just smiling. Since Slider had come up from the track within the past week or two, the foster folks said it was unfair to judge his house-training, but to be fair, if we were going to judge, he was doing poorly. He’d had multiple accidents, and he had overeaten to the point of vomiting (though that could easily be fixed by giving him less food, one would have to think).

The foster family’s own dog was at the super-lazy end of the spectrum—the man of the house joked that when the dog died, they could replace it with a blanket—which made Slider look even more hyper by comparison.

Rachael, of course, was smitten. It was the sort of connection she couldn’t really describe. She liked his look, his size, his quirky personality.

We took him for a walk. That part, I have to admit, even I thought was great. Greyhounds are tall, strong, regal, and obviously very fast animals. Walking a dog like that makes people turn their heads, which maybe felt normal for Rachael, but was a totally new feeling for me.

We met April a few days later. She was super sweet, and I liked how laid back she was, but Rachael was unimpressed. The dog hardly seemed to notice we were there, and while I tried to explain that not having to interact with the dog was the whole point of getting a greyhound, Rachael didn’t feel that spark. April was too timid.

Next up was our second date with Skippy. Her foster family had two other greyhounds, so the total of three dogs running circles around me was admittedly a little intense. In the comfort of her own home, Skippy seemed much more energetic, not nearly as clingy as she had been on our first meeting. In terms of her temperament, she was similar to Slider—affectionate and a little goofy. Unlike Slider, she was having no trouble doing her business outside the house. And since her foster family worked, she was used to her crate.

We both liked Skippy a lot, but I could tell Rachael preferred Slider, and much to both of our surprise, so did I. Sure, Skippy was a little more polished, but she pulled a lot on our walk, and I was worried that, in the event we someday have children, she might bite them the way she had another dog who tried to eat her food. Plus, if I’m being totally honest, I liked the idea of owning a male dog, in the same way that most guys secretly hope their kids will be boys (that’s a real thing, right?). And if I’m being really, really honest, I guess I sort of felt that same connection that Rachael did.

With the proviso that he needed to be making progress with his house-breaking issues, we decided to adopt Slider. When Rachael contacted his foster mother, she said, yep, the issue had been all squared away. They simply put him in the crate to sleep, problem solved. (We would later come to find that Slider didn’t enjoy the crate quite as much as she indicated, but more on that another time.)

We called our adoption contact at Rescued Racers with our decision. Rachael started reading books about the exact right way to parent a former racing greyhound. And I started to think, “My God, what have I gotten myself into?”

Why a Greyhound

Greyhound

Rachael wanted a dog. I didn’t. We began discussed compromises. I suggested maybe a picture of a dog. She said no. I said maybe a child. She said no. I said how about a dog breed with fewer of the canine traits that bother me? Finally, we were getting somewhere.

In hindsight, my demands were both unreasonable and honestly a bit prissy. I didn’t want the dog to shed, because I hate having pet hair on my clothes and worried about it affected my mild asthma. I didn’t want it to jump on me, because that freaks me out. I didn’t want it to lick me, because I wash my hands like 100 times a day when they’re not covered in slobber. Just thinking of the phrase “dog kiss” sends a shiver down my spine. The less barking, the better.

At first, we considered a golden doodle. They don’t shed (and are often referred to as hypoallergenic, which seems like a funny label for anything other than a pillow), since they’re part poodle. And they’re smart and easily trained, since they’re part golden retriever.

But as we began scanning adoption sites and visiting the humane society, we realized that golden doodles were basically never available for adoption. They’re such good dogs, owners don’t often give them up. If we wanted one, we would probably need to get a puppy from a breeder. Two problems with that: One, these puppies can cost more than $1,000, and two, puppies suck.

If you ask me, adult dogs have too much in common with infant humans, mostly their inability to talk, which makes meeting their needs a constant guessing game. But a puppy would be infinitely worse. I couldn’t imagine covering our historic hardwood in newspapers while we tried to house-break a baby dog.

So we widened our search to other breeds. Maybe a standard poodle, which still wouldn’t shed. Rachael lobbied for some pathetic-looking mutts from various adoption groups, emailing me cute photos and trying to make me feel guilty. We came close to adopting one dog that had been rescued from the streets of East St. Louis, but shied away when we found out it needed expensive allergy medicine.

Eventually, after I heard a radio ad that mentioned the group, we ended up on the website for Rescued Racers. Immediately, the thought of adopting a retired greyhound appealed to me. I’m a sports guy, and while I’m unsure how to feel about the morality of dog racing, I was intrigued by the idea of owning a dog whose statistics I could quote. They’re beautiful dogs, with their long legs and majestic gaits. Plus, I figured I could take a greyhound running with me.

The more we read about them, the more we liked. Greyhounds have short hair and hardly shed. And they’re known as the “World’s Fastest Couch Potatoes,” because they love nothing more than to lie around and sleep all day. Generally speaking, they don’t jump or lick, bite or bark. Adult greyhounds coming off the track are basically house-broken, since they know not to go in their kennels, and they’re comfortable around people and other dogs (though many of them would love to eat your cat, which didn’t bother me at all). Greyhounds are known as “magnet dogs,” sticking close to their humans and sharing Rachael’s passion for cuddling.

The only big surprise was that greyhounds, who max out over 40 miles per hour, don’t have the stamina to go running long distances with humans, since they’re used to sprinting for a half-mile or so and then sleeping the rest of the day. Jogging even a 5K would require quite a bit of training, working our way up slowly.

We contacted Rescued Racers and made arrangements to meet three dogs who were available for adoption. More on that next time.

Pound Puppy

I’m amazed by people who know how old they were for major life events. As a journalist, I end up asking a lot of people to tell me stories about their childhood. Somewhat regularly, they’ll say something like, “I remember when I was 7, my brother and I were wrestling when…”

My brain doesn’t work like that. I couldn’t name a single thing that happened when I was 7. Or 8. Or 9. I can tell you stories from when I was a kid—like the time I wandered away from a house party in Philadelphia and almost cost my parents their only child—but I have no idea how old I was at the time.

Which is all to say that I can’t tell you how old I was when we adopted my childhood pet, a beagle puppy from the pound that however-many-year-old me inventively named Pound Puppy. I’d guess that I was 3. Or 4 or 5 or 6.

Pound Puppy was a great dog. My dad took him hunting, and all these years later, he still talks about what a great rabbit dog Pound Puppy was. He’d scamper off through the woods, spot a bunny, howl, then chase Bugs back to dad’s waiting gun. Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t cook, but one of my few culinary experiments as a youth was coming up with sauces for rabbit—the combination of yellow mustard and chili powder is less terrible than you might expect. I also have a scarred finger from a time I got too curious about a pot of boiling rabbit on the stove. All thanks to Pound Puppy.

There are aspects of life growing up on the farm that, as a city-dwelling adult, seem almost preposterous in hindsight. Occasionally, I would take Pound Puppy for a walk, which meant unhooking his chain from his dog house and letting him drag me down the dirt lane. In memory, the chain was about 10 feet long, and the dog followed his nose, not his child companion. Luckily, Valley Road didn’t see much traffic.

More often, Pound Puppy was simply allowed to roam the farm, wandering freely over the family’s hundred-odd acres. Now and then, he’d go “missing,” not coming back to his dog house by dark, but he always returned eventually, looking for a meal or missing his feline and bovine companions in the barn. He was part pet, part farm animal. He loved to get scratched behind the ears, and he’d flip onto his back so I could rub his belly, but my hand would always come away black, proof of the dog’s never-ending outdoor adventures.

My father believes that there is one thing separating people from animals: People live in the home, and animals don’t. He believes that letting a dog in the house means that it’s no house at all—people with indoor pets are living in a barn, they just don’t know it. Dogs shed all over your clothes, piss on your carpet, and ruin your furniture. Conservatives like to complain about welfare recipients who have cellphones, drive nice cars, or worst of all, smoke pot. My dad, a Democrat, finds it objectionable only when people of little means waste their money on pets. And don’t even get him started on cancer treatments for animals, an incomprehensible waste of money and brain power. Luckily, Pound Puppy passed peacefully one New Year’s Eve, after only a short period of failing health.

I inherited more than a little of Dad’s world view. In college, when I met my future wife, Rachael, and we began to discuss our future lives together, I explained that I had only one nonnegotiable policy—no dogs in the house. If she wanted a pet, it would need to live under the stars, as God intended. In addition to my dad’s feelings about fur and furniture, I also tend to tense up around dogs. I’m not sure why, but they just make me feel uncomfortable. Being licked by a dog would rank up there with getting poked in the eye and being kneed in the groin on my list of least favorite touches.

I held firm in my anti-dog position for 8 years. But Rachael tends to get what she wants eventually. (When she read that sentence over my shoulder, she suggested I change it to, “Rachael is a loving person, and I like to make her happy.” My point exactly.) This summer, she started pushing hard on me to reconsider my stance on potential pets.

In the end, I caved (more on that in future posts). Despite weeks of seemingly endless discussions, I’m still far from sure it was the right decision.

My plan is to use this blog, which I haven’t posted on in years, to chronicle my experience as a reluctant dog owner. Bring on the barking. (Not really; our dog will keep quiet.)

The Great Rivera Remembered

I can’t say how many times I’ve seen Mariano Rivera pitch.

That might seem obvious. Why would anyone keep track of something so trivial? But in a way, it’s surprising, too. For one thing, I have a minor obsession with lists. More or less everything on this website is a list of one sort or another: a list of stadiums, a list of books, various lists of accomplishments. For another thing, I have a major obsession with Mariano Rivera. To put it simply, he was (and is) my favorite player. Of course, choosing a favorite player is an important moment in the life of any young sports fan. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling a special connection with the man I chose, even though we have never met. And I didn’t just pick any old favorite player. This was the great Rivera, the greatest closer who ever lived, who will ever live. This was a noble man who spoke softly, smiled, and then sawed your bat in half with devastating cut fastball after devastating cut fastball. The phrase “role model” is used far too often in sports, but Mariano is a superb one, in every sense.

Continue reading