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Well, shoot.

I think I might have emphasized the importance of timing in good training practices, and I really have tried to model it here. But I hope I've also been clear on how much lies outside our control and how ready we need to be to forgive ourselves and the creatures around us for our inevitable failures of composure. Life is messy, and we're messy along with it.


Here's the short story: my cancer has taken a scary new turn with a metastasis to my brain. I had thought I'd be back in the clasroom yesterday, but instead I'm in the hospital with a new hole in my head. My situation isn't yet hopeless, but it's pretty darn dire, and even in the best case scenario it's highly unlikely that I'll be able with the damage I've already sustained to work effectively and safely in the future with my favorite kinds of dogs (e.g., the unruly and the unsure). If you know me at all, though, you won't be surprised to hear that I can't leave well enough alone (especially not when hyped on the steroids they're giving me to keep my swollen  nut in the bounds of its shell): at every opportunity I get, I do slow laps in the corridors with one or another of a stream of excellent and very patient nurses, discussing the relative merits of various interventions to meet the challenges of autism and ADHD. Defending the scarred reputations of "pitties" and chihuahuas.

If you'd like the long story, it's over at

I've been frankly overwhelmed by the compassion that springs forth at the lightest touch of my twiggy little dousing rod these days. I only manage not to fall into a puddle myself for one simple, practical reason: crying makes my head ache. I can't do much in the way of visits, phone calls, etc, but virtual hugs and really dumb jokes are not only welcomed but craved. Almost as much as silly, happy, beautiful pics of furries and others (esp in small files or they crash my email server, drat).

Thank you big time.

Back soon, I hope, to carry on the adventure.Standing at the lip of a live volcano! Kilauea just a couple of weeks ago, celebrating an arduous but successful summitting.



So glad to be back!

Hello, all -

When I last wrote - nine months ago to the day - I was still trying to wrap my head around a rather terrifying diagnosis and the prospect of some brutal treatment. I had no choice but to make a big leap of faith that I'd get to the other side. So I launched myself over the abyss, grabbed a hardy little grass tuft on the far cliff face... and got pulled to safety by a terrific medical team and a small but mighty crowd of family, friends, and one-time strangers (including many of you who might be reading this).

Thanks to all of them (you), I've emerged more or less intact, with a precious new "leash" on life. (Sorry, old Muppet joke.) My doctors and I are guardedly but reasonably hopeful that I am now cancer-free, with a long future stretching out ahead of me.

As some of you already know, my mom died of breast cancer when she was only forty-eight, and we learned after my diagnosis that her lousy luck and mine can be traced back to a mutation of the BRCA1 gene. Long story short, I feel incredibly fortunate simply to be alive, and I'm more determined than ever to savor whatever time I have and make it meaningful.

Teaching plays a big part in that, so I'm very happy to say that I'm headed back into the classroom in just a few weeks. Our own three canine mischief-makers have been doing their obliging best to test my wits and speed my recovery from chemo brain, while games of tug with Pazzo have got my biceps nearly back to their bionic best. Training classes resume on Saturday, October 11th, with Sunday sessions to be added in November. I'm so looking forward to being useful again, and mixing it up with all the unruly people and pups of SW Portland!

I won't deny that it's been a rough ride of late - I shouldn't be surprised that my hair has come back white! But I've never been more intensely aware of my great good fortune, as I've had lifelines thrown to me from every direction. To all of you who let me know through a bleak time that I mattered, that you were rooting for me, that you had my back: Thank you. You kept me afloat. I'm really looking forward to reconnecting in these much brighter days.

Most gratefully,


Why is your dog wearing panties on her head?

It's a fair question, and I'm afraid I don't have a good answer for it, only a bad one. Three weeks ago I was diagnosed with an invasive ductal carcinoma - breast cancer - and it turns out to be a rather nasty variety, a high-grade (not good in this context), so-called "triple negative" malignancy. These tend to be aggressive and are invulnerable to some of the best modern treatments (e.g. hormone blockers like Tamoxifen). The good news that arrived this last week courtesy of a PET scan is that my cancer appears not to have metastasized to any significant degree and may remain confined to the breast. This means that my doctors and I have reason to hope we can knock it out completely. The bad news is that this will require some rather brutal treatment over the next five months or so. Because I have a strong family history of aggressive cancers (my mom survived melanoma at age thirty-five and died of inflammatory breast cancer at forty-eight), a genetic predisposition is pretty much a given; my doctors' consensus is that a double mastectomy will be the best course for my peace of mind, followed by a chemo regimen that will seriously deplete my energy and my ability to fight off infection.

Needless to say, but dog training is not a low-energy endeavor! I'm very sad to say that I'll need to take a long hiatus from the work I love and from the company of the people and dogs whose intelligence, warmth, and humor I so value. But I'm going to do my best to marshall my resources for healing and get back to this delightful business as soon as I can. Laughter plays a big role in that... and thus the embarrassing photo. A wonderful, silly friend of mine told me that, when there's serious illness in her family, they wear their underwear on their heads to keep their spirits up. As she says, "If you pull your hair through the leg holes, you can secure the look as you go about your daily chores." She then sent a photo of her lovely self, and a comforting bit of silliness was born. Sincere apologies to Barley. And Kili. And Pazzo. And to Jen M's guinea pigs - but you really do look smashing in doll lingerie!

As you can gather from this post, I've decided to be as open about this as I can manage emotionally. I learned from being on the sidelines of my mom's long struggles how isolating silence can be, and how needless that isolation is when illness and hardship are so common. I know (if only as a statistical certainty) that many of you have been touched by cancer or by some other version of "full catastrophe" living, and beyond this it's good to be reminded even in perfect health how precious this life is and you in it.

If you'd like to follow one cancer pilgrim's progress, and you don't mind some salty language, you can find me at www [dot] mouthofthewolf [dot] com. You'll also find the Overpantsed! gallery there, if you feel compelled to see guinea pigs be-hatted with doll bloomers. Please accept my apologies in advance if I'm unable to respond in a timely way to any/all correspondence - I am a little undone!

I hope to be back teaching in the summer. In the meantime, take good care of yourselves and your loved ones (furry and otherwise), and celebrate for all you're worth.

All best wishes for merriment and light!


p.s. Biggie Smalls, who may be (with apologies to countless other gratuitously charming pups) the most adorable student ever to ignore my instruction, sends her own enthusiastic Christmas greetings.


Ah, chère, don't be embarrassed...

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I could manage a decent imitation of Dennis Quaid​ as he soothed Ellen Barkin in a totally indecent New Orleans accent: "Diss is de Big Easy. People got a certain way of doin' things down heah." I was happy to discover a few years ago that the movie doesn't seem much sillier now than it did way back when I was in college. It's cheesy, The Big Easy, but it has its (tender-awkward-sexy) moments. Not to mention DQ's abs at their rub-board finest.

I've been wondering whether I should maybe dust off my version of a corrupt Nawlins detective for the benefit of my clients and their dogs, even at the risk that I'd send any self-respecting Catahoulah fleeing for the home swamps of Louisiana. (I haven't dared to try it out on our gal Kili, who likely has a big dose of leopard dog in her mix.)

Dogs aren't actually the ones who need to hear me channel Dennis Quaid. They're never embarrassed, but those with red-faced owners are often afraid, and they have good reason to be: there are few things more dangerous than an embarrassed human. I know that embarrassment has triggered many of my own worst decisions - if they could truly be called decisions at all. "Reflexes" would be more accurate. When something makes bruising contact with one of my ego's many soft spots, I often feel compelled to act in ways I later regret.

In my work with dogs and their people, I've become ever more alert to how seriously the human fear of embarrassment can undermine training and destroy trust. Thanks to a recommendation by Madeline Gabriel, a San Diego trainer who specializes in kid-dog interactions, I've been reading Becky Bailey's wise book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. Bailey wrote it as a guide to effective parenting, but much of her excellent advice readily applies to dog training and other situations where we're tempted to exert forcible control over another creature's will (e.g. as supervisors, directors, spouses, etc.).

As I write this, Pazzo & Kili are going bonkers over the squirrel who's taunting them from the maple tree in our front yard. It's all I can do to take my cue from Barley, who's curled up peaceably beside me. She raises one golden eyebrow before snuggling deeper into the couch cushions. The "Shut up, you idiots!" that rings in my head goes unshouted.

Bailey's central premise is simple but profound: we cannot teach skills of self-control that we do not possess ourselves. We all "know" that we teach most effectively by example, but few of us model the behavior we want to see. Few of us have made any concerted effort to master our many hungers, or learned to accept their inevitable frustration. Our desires get thwarted a thousand times daily, but most of us continue to believe that this is somehow unjust. We're still waiting to wake up to the world as it should be. The one built to our private specifications, where the rivers flow with whiskey (Kentucky bourbon) and everyone finds us charming and wise. That world has yet to arrive, so we throw tantrums into our forties (and beyond), or whip up sickly sweet batches of passive aggression that we slather on everything that fails to please us.

Given this sorry state of internal affairs, how can we hope to help less savvy or experienced creatures negotiate life's challenges with dignity and grace? The short answer: we can't. The long answer: we need first and foremost to get to work on our own tetchy selves.

As Bailey points out, one of the best ways to start is to stop asking our kids (or dogs) to be our ambassadors, to represent us to the world. It's our job to guide those under our care through the crazy obstacle course that is human life, but it's not their job to make us look good. If we ask them to shoulder that burden, if we "lose face" every time they misbehave, we set ourselves up for humiliation and anger, and we set them up for anxiety and resentment.

Bailey lays out an alternative path: Welcome mistakes. Welcome misbehavior. They are evidence of vitality and a healthy will. Set limits, establish consistent consequences, but never suppose that any creature is "bad" for wanting what it wants urgently enough to mess with your totally righteous desires.

Wonderful macaque photo by Jean-François Chenier. Find more of his work on Flickr.


The joys of misbehavior

The dog we deserve...All my life, I've had what other people might call "problems with authority," problems that boil down to a powerful desire to be the boss of myself and an equally powerful distaste for external pressure. If someone tells me what I have to do or how I have to do it, I'll immediately start looking for a better use of my time or a more interesting approach to the given challenge. This contrary impulse has been both a blessing and a curse, but I've come to accept it as a fact of my temperament, and life has become much easier as a result. (Well, maybe not for the people around me - I'm pretty sure I'm a worse pain in the butt now than I was before I got so self-accepting!)

So why the heck would someone with an allergy to authority get into dog training? Sheer cussedness and perversity? That probably played a part, but so did the recognition of an unmet need. I've learned that there are a lot  of fellow allergy sufferers out there, people who feel the same ambivalence I do toward concepts like "obedience" and "deference," people who really dislike the idea that dogs should march in lockstep with human desires. These are my people, and they need support! They need trainers who love dogs for being dogs, trainers who can help them work through some inevitable cross-cultural misunderstandings (arms mistaken for chew toys, dead salmon mistaken for Chanel No. 5) without making them feel like slobs or failures because their dogs walk in front of them or sleep beside them or snarfle up mud when it rains.

A friend once said that her boxer gave her a "window into wildness," and I think the idea of a window beautifully captures the power dogs have to illuminate life in two directions: in toward the domesticated human world and out toward the untame-able beyond. I have to admit that, while I do love dogs who are biddable and eager to please, I've always fallen hardest for dogs who err on the side of wildness, those who have a mighty "opposition reflex" and precious little respect for assumed, unearned, or overweening authority. My favorite dogs are "bad" dogs, "stubborn" dogs, dogs with "minds of their own." When these dogs ask, "Who made you the boss of me?" I have to say, "Good question!"