Words won’t mean much to your new puppy or your untrained rescue dog until he learns how to learn, until he makes the connection between the meaningless sound you are making and the action for which it stands.  Once he gets one connection, the others will begin to come more quickly, particularly if you always use the same word to mean the same thing, particularly if you are clear.  But until he makes that first connection, it’s all background noise.

The easiest first word/action is often SIT.  Sit is easy to teach and pretty easy for a pup to learn.  Take a favorite toy, hold over the dog’s head, say “Sit.”  In order to see the toy dangling over his head, a puppy will look up, lose his balance and sit.  Say “Good dog,” give him the toy, try it again later.  But what if your dog is an older dog, or an older puppy, a puppy who can stand on his hind legs easily, and will in order to get the toy.  What if you can’t even get eye contact, let alone ear contact?  Then you try something else.

Most dogs of any age love to follow their person.  So begin this useful game off leash if that works or on leash if that’s what you need to do.  And after the pup is hooked, after his tail wags and wags as he follows you, add a word or two.  “Let’s go,” or “Follow me” or whatever suits your fancy.  This might lead you to the sit and eventually to higher education.

But what if it doesn’t?

You can try “Take it,” using a small, squeaky toy.  Hold out the toy, say “Take it,” give the toy to your dog.  And if this works, once your dog knows “Take it.” you can add “Wait.”  After a week of the first, add the second.  Hold the toy in one hand, hold up your pointer on the other hand and tell him “Wait.”  If he hesitates for a moment, tell him “Tale it” and add some verbal praise.  After a few weeks of Follow Me, Take it and Wait, your dog should be ready for Sit, a word/action duo that, even for just a moment at first, will give him that moment to think about vocabulary and the fact that the sounds you make, at least some of them, are more significant than he previously believed.

Words, words, words.  Your dog can and should learn many of them.  The trick is starting off on the right foot.  And then how far you go is up to you.





Keep the most important things, the necessary things, the precious things, from the past and move into the future with optimism, hope and the joy of childhood.  It’s a whole new year.  Let’s use it well.





The past is important, but the secret of life is this:  Keep moving forward.



When opportunity knocks, open the door.



When someone tells you something in confidence, don’t repeat it.



Keep your friends close and, unlike the advice in The Godfather, avoid your enemies.


Take care of those who take care of you.


Make time to play each and every day.



When there’s nothing to do, take a little nap.

NewOrleansMemphis 026

Happy Holidays, fellow dog lovers, and a healthy, fun New Year!

I was surprised when I went to Paris years ago with Flash, my second service dog, that while the French adore dogs, they do not handle other people’s dogs.  Many people were curious to know what a “service dog” does, after reading the patch on Flash’s red cape, because the only chiens d’assistance in France are for the blind, or, at least, were then.  But no one bent down to call Flash to them.  No one chattered away to him in a high pitched voice.  No one asked to pet him or did so without asking.  And since dogs are allowed in restaurants there anyway, perhaps Flash didn’t need to wear his cape at all.  

Flash, in his cape, playing with a new French friend, Watson, on our first day in Paris:



But here, in the United States, while a cape or harness is not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, dressing a service dog for work has several important advantages.  For one thing, by clearly indicating why a dog has been given access where pet dogs are not allowed, you disabuse people of the idea that they should rush home, get their pup and bring it to the restaurant where you are dining, the museum where you are looking at art or the airplane you are about to board to go and visit your adorable grandchildren.  The cape, while not what makes your dog legal, comforts employees giving you access to places forbidden to other dogs.  The cape will prevent one, two or even a dozen questions from Park Rangers, hospital personnel, maitre d’s, even shop owners who do not let dogs into their stores.  And on top of all that, the cape lets the dog know that it’s time to put away childish things and get to work.

I always keep a spare key in Sky’s cape and a bit of money, so that I can go for a walk unencumbered by a purse or backpack.  She holds my gym card, my bus pass, extra pick up bags, even a bit of emergency medication, and, of course, the paperwork that says what the cape does not, that she’s legal.

Some dogs with other jobs wear their hearts on their sleeves, so to speak, as well, letting people know that they have a job to do, a purpose, and should not be interrupted.  Of course no outfit alone will stop some people from chatting away at your working dog.  Some who know they shouldn’t pet, yammer at the dog.  Some who know they shouldn’t yammer, whisper.  Some even say things like, “She looked at me,” trying to blame the dog when they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  She made me do.  It’s not my fault.

Still, the cape is worthwhile.  It tells the dog that even if the rest of the world is feeling silly, it’s time for them to be serious.  It’s time to go to work.

But what about people who buy a little cape, slap it onto their pet dogs, and gain access where they don’t belong?  Or should we ask instead, What about people who cheat on their taxes, lie to their loved ones, embezzle money, use shoddy material, charge you for a new air filter when your car doesn’t have an air filter, sleep on the job, check Facebook at the office, sell you out of date medication, abuse little children in their care?  Why should this be any different than any other human endeavor?  There are people who will cheat when it suits them and there are people who won’t.  You can’t decide for others.  You cannot make laws that are infallible.  You can only decide for yourself which kind of person you want to be, because when you look in the mirror, that’s whom you’ll see.

Flash at the Musee Picasso:

Flash and baby

As some of you already know, when I was a little girl, my mother saw a notice that some studio was looking for “the next Shirley Temple.”  Though I could not then and still cannot hold a tune, and while I was as far from a dance prodigy as you could get, my mother thought I was qualified because I had curly hair.  The studio disagreed.  My mother was sorely disappointed.

Even back then, I wanted to be a writer and a dog trainer.  As luck would have it, Margaret O’Brien was chosen to play Judy Garland’s little sister and I could hold tight to my dreams and eventually make them come true.

Sometimes you get exactly what you were hoping for.  Sometimes, not.  Sometimes you find just the right breeder or just the right rescue dog.  Sometimes, somehow, a dog walks into your life and he seems all wrong, but there he is.  And then it turns out that in order to reach this dog, in order to talk to him, in order to teach him what he needs to know, the world has to open up. Little by little, you see more, you hear more, you feel more.  Little by little, the wrong dog becomes the right dog.  Or, at any rate, your dog.  You change him.  He changes you.  And one day you are out together, maybe walking on a pretty trail in the country, perhaps walking on a city street, and you look down at him and he looks back at you, his round, brown eyes seeking yours, smiling.  And you think, what’s luck got to do with it?  Maybe something.  Maybe nothing.  Maybe, in your heart, you knew all along he was the right dog for you.




Some years ago, when I was on book tour with my first service dog, Dexter, we found ourselves walking alone on a street in Los Angeles.  Lots of cars were whizzing by, but there wasn’t another soul walking.  I began to think about how it was because of Dexter that I was doing so well on the trip, that despite all the stress I wasn’t getting sick, and I expressed my gratitude out loud since there wasn’t anyone else there.  I love you, Dexter, I told him, and immediately got a rush of what I thought might be endorphins, though it could well have been oxytocin.  Whatever it was, I suddenly felt fabulous.

This is one of the perks of having a pet and clearly, it doesn’t only come from cuddling and petting.  You can get your good hormone fix by saying “I love you” out loud.  You can even get happy by just looking at your dog.  You know the old saying, Love comes in at the eye.  And so it does.  And so it does.

Years ago, when I was writing the Rachel and Dash mysteries, I attended at a Private Eye Writers convention in St. Louis with my first service dog, Dexter.

DexterOn the third day of the convention, someone came up to me to tell me that Dexter was the best trained dog she’d ever seen.  I thanked her for her kind remark and then told her that I hadn’t asked him to do anything since I’d left home.  I hadn’t told him how to behave in the airport or where to lie down on the plane.  I hadn’t told him to kiss everyone who came to talk to us to make them think I was a great writer.  I hadn’t told him what to do when I was on a panel or how to behave at meals.  Dexter made his own decisions and this was fine with me because he always made appropriate ones.  He was the smartest dog I ever met about being a dog.  He knew how to get along with others, humans he didn’t know and dogs who were too fearful to even look at him.  The first time he walked into a hotel, he stopped in the lobby, glanced around and had the whole thing down cold.  He happily moved from hotel to hotel with me on book tour, schmoozed up the audiences to help sell books and even did some tricks on TV when we were in Phoenix and discovered that the host of the show had not read my book and had no idea it was a mystery.  Dog?  Dog tricks!  OK, you got it.  Smart dog?  Smart dog.

Now that my partner is a Border Collie, I hear this just about every day:  That’s the smartest breed, isn’t it?


How should I answer?

Should I say, as I sometimes do, it depends what you’re after, that if I were hunting rabbits, I’d sooner take a Beagle along.  Or that if I needed to protect some sheep, rather than move them, I’d want an Akbash.  Should I say that hybrid vigor makes mixed breed dogs smarter?  (Some yes, some no.) Or should I say that what’s really important is that you can work with your dog in a way that increases his intelligence, that takes him from wherever he is and helps him to learn language, solve problems, crack jokes, understand and be understood.  Should I say that if it’s the Tibetan Terrier or the Lab or the Dachshund or the Newfoundland that makes your heart beat faster, so be it.  You can make that dog, the one you love, the one you have, into a smarter, more fun companion.

And, no, you probably don’t want a Border Collie unless you have a real job for her to do.

What’s the smartest breed?  All the ones I’ve ever had because when someone asks me how long it took to train my dog, I think, Why stop?  Why not show her shapes with my hands and send her to find something to match the shape?  Why not make the sound one of her toys makes and send her to find it and make that same sound?  Why not satisfy everything a dog needs, mind, body and spirit alike? Why stop at a PhD when you can do post doctoral work?

Of course, when I’m in a rush and someone says, a Border Collie, the smartest breed, I just smile and say, She’s pretty smart.  And that’s true, too.



When I was little, my father once told me that during the war, the one after the one they said would end all wars, he used to kneel at the window in the dark and scan the night sky for enemy planes.  You knew who was the enemy back then.  You knew where he lived, too.  Even so, and even though the war was fought on enemy soil, as their countries were called, it was still awfully scary.  So if something woke you in the middle of the night, or if you just couldn’t sleep, you couldn’t help it, you’d find yourself at the window, watching the sky and wondering what if.

When I began to cry, he put his arm around me and pressed me close.  I could smell his aftershave and feel the smoothness of his white shirt against my skin.  “Just listen to your mother,” he said, “and you’ll be safe.”

Like my father so many years ago in what now seems like a simpler time, in what now seems like another world altogether, I, too, can’t help watching the sky and wondering what if.    Only now, you watch in  broad daylight.  And now I know for sure that the terrible things you worry about are almost never the ones that happen.

From FALL GUY, A Rachel Alexander Mystery, 2004nineeleven 005



How could it be natural for a white tailed deer to be walking down the sidewalk in Banff last month?  Simple.  There are lots of bushes in town, bushes with tender, tasty leaves.  There’s little competition for the food supply.  Most important, there are no predators in town, so one can munch in peace.

Tracing behaviors backwards, even silly looking acts will link back to survival, the most essential element in Mother Nature’s grand and glorious plan.  The oddest query ever got – or at least the oddest query I can write about – was about a Borzoi who turned on the tap in the kitchen whenever his people went out.  His bowl was filled with fresh water, so it wasn’t that he was thirsty.  And while this was a question at a seminar and I never met the dog himself, my best guess is that the running water helped the Borzoi to survive.  It made the house sound more like the way it did when his family was home, thus lowering his anxiety level and allowing him to rest comfortably until it was time to go out and play.

My cat Sasha, a pet I had when I was in college, would get into a suitcase and hide under the clothes, hoping not to be found and ousted.  Once, when I went away for a weekend, the person who promised to feed him didn’t.  Sasha was left alone and without food for three days.  For survival’s sake, he never planned to let that happen again. (Nor did i!)

Our rescue dog Monk knows all the little things we do before leaving the house.  Even after several years, he doesn’t particularly like living in a busy, noisy city.  So if I put on my watch or Steve starts to put on his shoes and socks, Monk darts under the bed.  And while he usually comes running when we call, “All dogs come,” wagging his tail and waiting to be dressed for his walk, his first instinct, the one that says it’s dangerous out there, inspires him to hide first.

Survival.  After all, what is there without it?

When you are stumped by something odd, something nutty, your dog does, peel the onion.  Take off layer after layer until you find the reason for the activity, the connection to survival.  It’s a powerful motivation and no matter how covered up it may seem to be, it’s almost always there.





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