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If only I could read his mind …

While I feel pretty attuned to my dog – though nowhere near as attuned as he is to me – there have been times, lots of times, during our seven months of traveling that I’ve wondered what he really thinks of it all.

We’ve been on the go since the end of May, not staying anywhere, until our most recent stop, for longer than two or three days. More often, it has been a new Motel 6, or similarly priced lodgings, every night, followed by four, five or six hours of drive time, then landing in a new place, with new smells, which must be sniffed out and, of course, peed on.

By the time we’re done, in another week, we will have traveled over 22,000 miles, he will have peed on 31 states (and Canada) and we will have crossed the country twice in our red Jeep Liberty.

And he will have, hundreds of times, looked up at me with those big brown eyes, which are so highly expressive.

If only I knew what they were expressing.

Ace in May in North Carolina

The back of my Jeep, which once meant he was heading on an outing, has become — other than me, and dinner — one of the few constants in his life of late. It, more than any place, is home, and he still jumps in it excitedly.

During our four weeks of sitting still in Arizona, he still waits to jump in the car. Is it  conditioning, or is he truly eager to go; and, if the latter, is it because he has come to love the road, or that he wants to finally get the hell home?

Is he enjoying the adventure, or, irony of ironies, does he find the Liberty confining?

 While Ace seems to have adapted wonderfully to the new routine – or lack of one – and shows no visible signs of being unhappy, I still wonder if not being rooted, not having one place to call home, is bothering him.

Ace in June in Alabama

Does he find being a vagabond liberating, as I – most of the time – do, or is he longing for a place of his own, an end to the travels, a return to the daily routine? Dogs do seem to love their routines.

His tail has remained curled most of the time, and that has always been the most obvious barometer of his mood.

But there are times I look at him, when he’s lying with his head on his paws that I wonder: Is he sad, is he depressed, or is he just lying with his head on his paws?

It’s important for me to know, because this trip, in more ways than one, is about him.

In addition to having nothing better to do, thinking it might be fun to travel across America, documenting our daily exploits and seeking out dog stories — to put together a “Travels With Charley” for modern times, only a more dog-centric version — this journey was also sparked by a feeling I was left with after writing my first book, “DOG, INC.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

Ace in July, outside Amarillo

After researching the often incredible lengths bereaved pet owners go to when their dogs get sick and die, including that most high tech length of all – cloning – it struck me, in what is likely neither a deep nor original thought, that we humans could, and should, do a better job of savoring our loved ones (of all species) while they’re still around. Maybe then, rather than prolonged and paralyzing grief, we could, knowing we had fully celebrated their lives, better accept their deaths.

Ace in August, at the beach in North Carolina

I don’t really know if that would lessen the pain of a loved one’s departure. It could, for all I know, only make it worse. But that’s not the point. The point is we humans, as the song goes, “don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” that we take things for granted – not just unpaved paradises, but our parents, our planet, our friends and our dogs.

And while I’m as guilty as anybody on the parents and friends part, I resolved – after writing about how people go so far as to “stuff,” mummify and freeze dry their deceased pets, or pay $100,000 to produce a genetic replica through cloning – that Ace would be appreciated. In life.

In September, aboard a sailboat we slept on in Baltimore

That doesn’t mean spoiled and pampered — that’s entirely different. But I made a promise to myself to fully enjoy my dog — to, if it’s not too precious a word, treasure him (not that I didn’t already) — in our relatively brief time together. (Ace, who came into my life when he was 6 months old, is going on 7 years now, and being a big dog, will be lucky to reach the teens.)

Ace at Niagara Falls in October

I saw the trip, rightly or wrongly, as a way to do that – to take the time we shared beyond the routine of coming home from work, walking to the park, eating dinner and snuggling in front of the TV — though, again, for all I know, perhaps that was the life that Ace really preferred.

If, as I suspect, our dogs reflect our moods, then doing what makes me happiest, I reasoned, would make him happiest – especially given the fact that we’d be doing it together — and probably nothing makes me happier, other than Ace laying his head on my belly, than traveling, writing, seeing new things, and meeting new people.

So, even though finances didn’t really permit it, with an assist from my 401K and unemployment benefits, we set off on this journey, not being sure where it would lead, how long it might last, or what, other than some stories to share, it might result in.

In November, on the coast of Oregon

At first, I planned for three months on the road. When that was done, we kept going, heading to the former home of John Steinbeck on Long Island and, on the same day he left 50 years earlier, starting again, roughly following the same route the author took in “Travels With Charley.” That took another three months.

Now, we’re preparing to head back east – we’re still not sure where home is, but Baltimore will do for now. We’ll be sticking to interstate highways to make better time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, it’s that schedules and itineraries – and particularly interstate highways — make traveling, at once, more stressful and boring. They snuff out any opportunities for spontaneity. You miss out on the character, and characters, America has to offer.

But as we “make good time,” I’ll be a little less stressed about whether Ace is enjoying the ride.

Ace and friends in December, Cave Creek, Arizona

Despite all the time I pondered the questions; despite my long looks into his soulful brown eyes attempting to gauge his emotions; despite some one-sided conversations where I’ve attempted to explain things, with his only response being giving me his paw; despite priding myself on having some dog empathy, I’d been unable to figure out the answer to that question: Is Ace having fun?

So, last week, before I left Cave Creek, I sought a second opinion.

It was Ace’s second visit with an animal communicator – the first having come when I was researching a series I wrote for the Baltimore Sun about trying to uncover the past of my mysterious new dog, adopted from what used to be the city pound.

What was he, and where did he come from? For the answers then I turned to DNA testing (which showed him to be a Rottweiler-Chow-Akita), to legwork (walking the streets of the neighborhood where records showed he’d been picked up as a stray) and, finally, to an animal communicator. Perhaps the answers, I figured, could come straight from the source: Ace.

I’m neither a big believer, or for that matter a big disbeliever, in those that claim animals talk to them, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to listen – to them, or, if possible, to Ace. 

Not long after parking myself in Cave Creek, Arizona, I visited For Goodness Sake, a thrift store that donates part of its profits to animal rescue organizations. At a weekend fund-raising event there, I entered a raffle for a session with a local animal communicator, and I won.

Last week, Ace and I sat down with Debbie Johnstone of Listen 2 Animals.

And according to her, Ace had lots to say.

(Tomorrow: Ace talks)

Comments

Comment from kelly
Time December 28, 2010 at 7:05 am

I can’t wait for tomorrow! But, if it ends up he’s saying, “Gee, John, pass the treats”, I will be disappointed.

Comment from debbie
Time December 28, 2010 at 7:28 am

Wonderful reflective story for New Years.

When you get to Baltimore, however, I wonder if you won’t be left with the feeling..” you can’t go back’.. or, rather, ‘there’s no place like home’….

You two be safe out there…

Comment from anon
Time December 28, 2010 at 8:33 am

“Ace and friends in December, Cave Creek, Arizona” is a gorgeous picture.

Just started reading Inside of a Dog http://www.amazon.com/Inside-Dog-What-Dogs-Smell/dp/1416583432/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1293538463&sr=1-1

While we’ve come a long way from viewing dogs as lumps to be shaped, have distances to go but ultimately will fail any full understanding of an animals mind.

Henry Beston prose says it best

….”For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
http://www.all-creatures.org/quotes/beston_henry.html

Another well-traveled dog:

“In memory of a well-traveled dog”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/worldview/091030/memory-well-traveled-dog

Comment from smitty
Time December 28, 2010 at 10:47 am

Great written piece, and wonderful photos…can’t wait ’til tomorrow.

As for dogs and riding in vehicles, most of the dogs in my life have been what we have come to call ‘car-riders’.

In the days of my youth Dad always had one or two hunting dogs-Beagles that loved to chase rabbits, and were always excited to ride, as that usually meant an outing to train or hunt.

Then, lots of mostly mutts that also loved to ride, instantly enthusiastic at the sound of car keys jingling, or their people putting clothing on that was associated with car-riding.

Now, Chocolate (aka Choc)-a Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix-seems to see going for a ride-aside from being fed-as her prime enjoyment. She always expects to be included in all vehicular transport activities, and appears to sulk when left behind.

We now know to be careful about leaving a car door open, as Choc automatically assumes it’s ride-time and jumps in, refusing orders to leave the vehicle until taken for at least a short ride.

Choc doesn’t differentiate between our cars and someone else’s car-visitors that leave car doors open soon find an eager-to-ride four-legger has entered their vehicle.

Comment from dogtravelpro
Time December 29, 2010 at 11:12 am

Fascinating how much better a trip seems, when seen through the eyes of our dogs

Comment from Anonymous
Time December 30, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Hmmm…. What would Ace say? I hope he would express his undying love for me ( or my pocket full of treats)

Pingback from Top 10 2010 Favorite Blog Posts | Dancing Dog Blog
Time December 31, 2010 at 6:45 pm

[...] If Only I Could Read His Mind…  John Woestendiek, Ohmidog [...]

Comment from anon
Time January 14, 2011 at 7:49 am

Orvis.com has a Cover Dog Contest for which you might consider submitting “Ace and friends in December, Cave Creek, Arizona” photo or any other photo.

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