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Out of the mansion: Leaving Barkley behind

Ace and I have fully moved out of the mansion basement we spent more than a month living in — and while he’s not missing the stairs, and I’m not missing living underground, we are both missing Lord Barkley, the rescued sheltie who quietly watches over the manor.

Lord Barkley and Ace hit it off from the beginning — not in a jumping all over each other kind of way. From the moment they met, you could tell there was something similar to a quiet, mutual respect. They’re both mellow dogs; both can be a little aloof. And maybe something about the stately mansion setting evoked in them a sense that reserved and civilized behavior was to be followed.

Given Ace’s back problems, and the fact that Lord Barkley, according to his mistress, had never hung out with another dog since she rescued him, their co-existence was pretty low key. Only once or twice did they actually run around and play; more often they took turns following each other slowly around the yard, like a mini-pack.

Lord Barkley, when he was let out for his morning constitutional, and his afternoon and evening ones, would bark — though he’s normally not much of a barker — until I let Ace out of our subterranean quarters. Then they’d wander the yard, one behind the other.

When Barkley was called back in, Ace went as well — for our host, Miss Caroline, made it a practice to give Ace a treat everyday.

They’d both go into the kitchen and watch intently as Miss Caroline went to the dog treat jar.

“Manners!” she’d say. “Manners!”

Both dogs would lay down and wait for the treats.

Miss Caroline says, based on the information she received when she adopted him, Lord Barkley spent much of his early life in a crate and possibly was mistreated. Now, in addition to having run of the 22-room mansion, he follows her everywhere — grocery store, drug store, wherever she’s running errands.

In her late 80s, Miss Caroline has lived the kind of life of which books are written. She was a model, an actress, a writer, sculptor and painter, even a race car driver. She worked extensively in the Middle East, and was the star of several commercials made long ago for R.J. Reynolds cigarettes, produced in Arabic. She was a friend of shahs, sheiks and dictators.

She didn’t just tolerate having Ace at her home, she delighted in it, and Ace took an instant liking to her, even before the first treat was dispensed. As he does with those he deems friends for life, he took to sitting on her foot, which always made her smile. Or, with Ace being 130 pounds, was it a pained grimace? Either way, she let him get away with it.

Miss Caroline, who’s now working on a children’s book, has put the mansion up for sale several times. Unable to get her price, she has taken in guests, who live in the basement, the carriage house, or in some of the upstairs rooms, which she has decorated in themes. One of two men’s rooms, for instance, has a nautical theme. There are two rooms for women, too.

I enjoyed our month at the mansion; Ace, though he never seemed keen on the basement, or the stairs leading to it, preferred to spend his time in the yard, chilling with Barkley in the grass, or, better yet, upstairs in Miss Caroline’s house.

When Ace was diagnosed with a herniated disc last month, moving somewhere that didn’t have stairs was necessary. So we bid farewell to Lord Barkely and Miss Caroline, with the promise that we’d come back and visit often.

But, after reclaiming my stored stuff after 11 months on the road, and hauling it to North Carolina, almost all my time has been taken up by the seemingly endless task of unpacking.

With what appears to be a light at the end of that tunnel, next week we will pay a visit, renewing our ties with Miss Caroline, and our bond with Lord Barkley, all, of course, while observing the decorum that befits a stately southern mansion.

“Manners!”

Almost home: You won’t see this on HGTV

Before I show you my new place – that’s next week, when I’m done decorating — I thought I’d show you somebody else’s.

We came upon it last week, on the trip to move my furniture down south.

There’s an exit on I-95 in Virginia that Ace and I always stop at — one where I can get low-price, by Maryland standards, cigarettes; fill my gas tank; and grab a bite at the Burger King, whose guide to which sodas go best with which entrees always makes by beverage decision easier.

Then we drive a few hundred feet to the end of a big parking lot, where there’s a large grassy area, next to a copse of trees. I park at the edge of the grass, open the back of the Jeep and sit there to enjoy my picnic lunch while Ace sniffs around the empty patch of grass, takes care of business, then sits and waits for french fries to be flung his way. Or better yet, in his view, a hunk of burger, whose variations at Burger King include a Triple Whopper, and Quad Stacker. As you know, you can “Have it your way.”

The exit — Willis Road, I think it’s called, on the southern edge of Richmond – has become a tradition for us. Ace likes traditions, especially those involving meat.

Last week, with Ace in the back of the Jeep, and my friend Will following me in the rented moving truck, I had tired of music and decided to find a talker on the radio, either flaming liberal or die-hard conservative — for those are the only options — it didn’t matter.

I can’t remember his name, but I ended up with the die-hard conservative — a Rush Limbaugh wannabe, only angrier, who was jumping all over President Obama’s recent remarks about increasing taxes on the richest to assist the poorest.

Obama, it seemed, wanted to help the “less fortunate,” and you would have guessed, from the way the talk show host was saying “less fortunate” that he was smirking and putting finger quotes around it — as if he thought there was no such thing, or, if there were, that they were all sissies.

Though I had spent nearly a year without my material possessions as Ace and I traveled across America on a shoestring; though I’m not employed by anyone other than myself, though I have neither health insurance nor nest egg, I’ve never considered myself among the less fortunate (which I say without finger quotes, because only sissies make finger quotes).

Similarly, I’ve never considered myself too far removed from that group. One overnight hospital visit would probably put me in their ranks.

In our time on the road, Ace and I were homeless by choice, but frugal out of necessity, which explains why we ran into plenty of down on their luck souls – some of whom had made bad decisions, more of whom were victims of matters beyond their control, like layoffs, or foreclosures, or crime, or natural disasters, or unnatural disasters, or health issues or disabilities.

In the America of 2011, with the gap between the rich and the poor having become as extreme as our talk show hosts, I’m thankful to be in the middle, even the lower section of the middle. I plan to try and stay there until the middle disappears. Having reunited with my possessions, called in my pension (it actually came when I called) and begun setting up a new home — albeit without stainless steel appliances – I’m feeling more secure. But I’m aware of how tenuous that can be.

After stopping at our traditional Virginia picnic spot last week, I finished off my fish sandwich, accompanied by a Diet Coke – though maybe Sprite would have been a better choice — and Ace I walked around the corner, where there was a wooden fence with a small opening in it. We stepped through.

That’s where we saw this homeless encampment.

 

I’m not sure if it served as home for multiple people, or just one, but nobody was at the camp amid the trees, just off I-95, where a half dozen mattresses and tarps were scattered, clothes hung on tree limbs and — speaking of accessories that pop — empty sardine cans, their tops peeled back, served as ash trays.

I was wandering around taking pictures, when a medium-sized, copper-colored dog came running out from behind a mattress that was leaning against the fence. Barking furiously, he headed straight at me, then stopped and stared, as if daring me to take another step in his direction.

I tried to fling him some french fries, but every time I threw one, he retreated — only slightly though, never leaving his position amid the modest little camp. That seemed to be his mission — to protect the few meager belongings that were there, to guard over them until his human came back from collecting aluminum cans, or panhandling at the exit ramp, or maybe even working a real job.

The dog acted like it was Fort Knox, and he was a German shepherd.

That’s got to be in the top hundred of the million great things about dogs — they don’t care how much stuff you have.

They are able to show respect, loyalty and compassion to the poorest of souls — in a way Republicans, at least the loudest ones, are rarely able to master. Some Democrats aren’t that great at it, either. I’m not always too good at it myself. How much have I contributed to Japanese tsunami victims? Zero. I need to save up and buy a clothes dryer.

We humans are far more selfish than dogs. Then again dogs aren’t raised on TV ads and shiny magazines that bombard them with images of things that manipulative marketing types persuade them they must have.

I thought about calling the conservative radio talk show host, even though he sounded like a very nasty fellow who would interrupt me. ”Why is it we make a greater investment in accumulating stuff than in our fellow humans?” I wanted to ask. “When did war become patriotic and helping people become unpatriotic?”

And which soda really does pair best with the fish sandwich?

Old friends, new friends & Vietnamese soup

If this week’s move out of Baltimore taught me anything, it’s that I probably shouldn’t be moving out of Baltimore.

Three friends showed up to help me load my rental truck, along with a fourth, from Philadelphia, who also followed me the 400-plus miles back to North Carolina in the rental truck.

There are two types of friends in the world — those who say they’ll help you move, and those who help you move. And while they’re all worth keeping, one must take special care never to take the latter type for granted. A friend who helps you move is right up there with the person who pulls you from the path of an oncoming bus: You are forever in their debt — at least until you help them move, or save their life.

Will Weaver of Philadelphia flew down from Baltimore, did most of the heavy lifting and masterminded the loading of my Budget rental truck in such away that the contents would not be crushed — at least I think so, we haven’t unpacked yet.

Three Baltimore friends showed up to help load, including the couple who, as they have before, let us stay at their home, which they occupy with a Boston terrier named Darcy. They even saved us a space to park the truck on the street in front of their house.

All the shows of friendship gave me second thoughts about departing the city — even if it’s only temporary. And as for Ace, he was thrilled to visit, reconnect and suck in the smells of Riverside Park. Despite his herniated disc, he frolicked as he hasn’t frolicked for at least two weeks.

But just as we when we left Baltimore 11 months ago to start our journey, the city made leaving a little easier, slapping a parking ticket on my rental truck sometime during the night. Though it was otherwise parked legally, apparently “commercial” vehicles aren’t allowed on the street. Cost of the ticket: $250, almost as much as the truck rental.

That pretty much crushed my efforts to move as frugally as possible — assuming I pay it.

The ticket was one of only two moving mishaps (so far). The other was when I stopped at my ex-girlfriend’s home (the real one, not the cardboard one). I was picking up a few items I left in her care, and Will and I grabbed lunch to go at the eatery across the street. We sat at her picnic table to eat, and, just after I took my last bite — as if it somehow that last swallow of cheeseburger put me over the limit — the legs on the bench cracked, sending me falling over backwards.

I was fine. The bench is not.

As for the cardboard girlfriend, I passed her on to another male friend, leaving her on his doorstep.

Yesterday, we pulled out of Baltimore in the rain, and arrived seven hours later in Winston-Salem, also in the rain.

That allowed us to put off unpacking until today. Instead, Will and I went out to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant, where we got soup in bowls bigger than my bathroom sink. I, the ever-frugal one, got what remained of mine packaged to go.

As we walked back to my car (which thankfully had no parking ticket this time), a large man approached me and said he wanted to shake my hand.

His story, as they always do, followed: Just got out of jail three hours ago, trying to raise $14 for a cab ride to his aunt’s house, already had $10, needed $4 more.

I informed him that, with his $10, he was in possession of more cash than me, but — feeling his pain and smelling his breath, and realizing I should probably stay on his good side – I offered up what I had.

“How about some soup?”

He thought about it and, while it was clearly his second choice, accepted the plastic vat before moving on to his next mark.

Being new to town, and not having my protector, Ace, with me, I figured it was better to make a new acquaintance than to have soup tomorrow.

For me, the choice was simple: Friend or Pho.

Spending on pets nearing $50 billion mark

Americans may be cutting corners to cope with the crappy economy, but spending on pets appears healthy as ever, at least according the the American Pet Products Association’s latest report and poll.

Pet ownership is at an all-time high of 72.9 million households — about two of every three households, according to survey results released Monday.

The total number of pets — including 78 million dogs and 86.4 million cats– represents a 2.1 percent increase over last year, according to UPI.

The APPA’s annual report showed Americans spent more than $48 billion on their pets in 2010, an increase of of 6.2 percent over 2009, and it anticipates spending could top $50 billion in 2011.

The biggest surge in spending is expected to be in the area of veterinary care, with the APPA estimating $14 billion will be spent by pet owners in 2011.

More than 15 percent of dog owners, in fact, said their animal’s medical treatment would take priority over their own, according to a Reuters report on the poll.

Spending on treats, toys and accessories was up a reported 30 percent, from $56 million to $73 million. And the cost of buying a dog has also spiked from $121 to $364 due to the increased price of pure breeds.

“The pet industry continues to see unprecedented growth,” said APPA President Bob Vetere. “The survey reveals pet owners are willing to spend money on their pets despite a downturn in the economy.”

(Photo: Money sculpture by Justine Smith. To see more of her art visit justinesmith.net)

No! No! No! He’s too young to be old

Ace has been stricken.

With exactly what, I don’t know. But in the past four days, he has taken to yelping when he gets up from a long nap or makes a sudden move.

At the dog park this week, he has plodded along lethargically, showing little interest in other dogs — even when he ran into this little white fellow who shares his name. How’s that for a pair of Aces?

I have poked and prodded every inch of his oversized body, but I’m unable to pinpoint what particular spot might be hurting him.

So today, we’re off to the vet.

My first thought was the hips. That’s based partly on the simple fact that he’s very big. Then, too, some of you might recall, when I took Ace to an animal communicator three months ago, she told me he was having some mild discomfort in that area. Add in the 10 months we’ve been traveling, and all the hopping up into and down from the back of my jeep he’s been doing, and the hips seem as good a guess as any.

I knew the day would come when the jumping in and out of the car would need to cease, and given his size, maybe that practice should never have started. Chances are — at age 6 — that day is here, earlier than I expected, and not without some accompanying guilt on my part.

Yesterday I ordered a ramp.

Then again, it might not be his hips at all. Although he’s hesitating to jump into the car, he’s not yelping when he does so — only when makes a sudden movement, usually after laying still.

I’ve pushed on his paws, rubbed the lengths of his legs, looked into his ears and down his throat, poked his belly and prodded his hips. None of that seemed to bother him. He didn’t yelp. He didn’t do that thing he does where his eyes get big, which signifies, to me, anyway, rising alarm on his part. That would have told me I was getting close.

The only time he yelped was when I lowered his head, making me think maybe the pain is in his neck, or spine-related. A half hour massage followed, which, though it might not have helped at all, he seemed to appreciate.

I am puzzled, too, about how much of his current “down-ness” is physical, and how much of it might be emotional.

Twice, I’ve come home to hear him howling — not howls of pain, I don’t think, but howls of loneliness. Twice I’ve left the video camera on, to try and capture their onset, but he didn’t howl those times. And the times he did, he immediately cheered up and ran around when I walked through the door.

I’m pretty sure Ace is less than in love with our new basement quarters, though he likes the upstairs and yard just fine. He has shown a distinct preference for being outside, content to lay at top of stairs, keeping an eye on the kitchen window of the mansion owner, who gives him a daily biscuit.

Something about the basement bothers him. And friends I’ve talked about it with have different theories. Maybe he was mistreated in a basement in his puppyhood. Maybe the old mansion we’re living under is haunted. Maybe, with a firehouse around the corner, the sirens are bothering him, though they never have before — and we lived in Baltimore, where sirens are background music. Maybe it’s the lack of sunlight, or he’s getting arthritic and the cold and dampness of the cellar aggravate it.

He’s moving slowly, lethargically (except when the treats come out), and rather than circling twice before laying down, he’s circling about eight times.

Yesterday, working with my theory that it might be his neck, I took a treat and moved it around in front of him — from side to side, then up and down. There were no yelps. Either it caused no pain, or the thought of getting food superceded it.

So, with fingers crossed, we’re headed to the nearest veterinarian, with hopes that whatever is bothering him is something minor, something that will pass or doesn’t cost too much to fix,  something unrelated to all the traveling I’ve put him through — 21,000 miles of it over the past ten months, something that is neither chronic nor old-age related.

Because he’s too young to be old.

Atlantic City casino goes dog-friendly

You won’t see dogs playing poker — they’re banned from the gaming room floor — but one casino in Atlantic City has  turned dog friendly, welcoming dogs into guest rooms and providing treats, food and water bowls and even a keepsake duffle bag.

Showboat has officially marked its territory as the only dog-friendly casino in Atlantic City.

The casino-hotel has set aside a collection of rooms in its New Orleans Tower to accommodate all kinds of canines.

“We’re thrilled to bring Pet Stay Atlantic City to our guests and provide the royal treatment to man’s best friend,” said Joe Domenico, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Showboat and Bally’s Atlantic City. “This initiative puts Showboat at the forefront of Atlantic City’s world-class offerings and will bring more customers to our casinos without having to leave their pets behind.”

A party to kick off the new program was held last week in Showboat’s Club Harlem.

The pet program is open to dogs only and allows a maximum of 2 dogs up to 50 pounds per room. There is a $40 fee per night for pets, but the fee will be waived during the first two weeks of the program’s launch.

Dogs are allowed in the hotel but are not permitted on the casino floor or in food and beverage areas, the spa or retail shops.

For more information, check the Showboat website.

(Photo: Courtesy of Showboat Casino)

Getting to (sniff, sniff) know you


Humans need a play stance.

I came to this conclusion yesterday — adding yet another item to the list of things dogs do better than us – as Ace and I arrived for the first time at the only dog park in Winston-Salem proper (and Winston-Salem is pretty proper).

Being new and mostly friendless in the town in which we’ve decided to temporarily base ourselves, we left our quarters in the basement of a mansion and, for a little socialization, headed a couple miles down the road to Washington Park, where dogs can run and play in a fenced-in area.

Of course, Ace hardly romped at all. It being a new scene for him, his first priority was to give all things a good sniffing  – other dogs included. But, on this day, he was more the sniffee than the sniffer.

The second I closed the gate behind us, five other dogs — realizing there was a new face — bounded over for a whiff, following so close behind his rear end that, when he stopped abruptly … well you know the rest.

Butts aside, it’s an intriguing thing to watch, this seeming welcome, and one I noticed often back at Ace’s old park in Baltimore. When a first-timer arrives, all the other dogs come over to give the new guy a sniff. To view that as an act of kindness is, of course, anthropomorphic. But still it’s kind of sweet.

This weekend, Ace — though he was used to being the dean of his old park — was the new kid on the block.

He courteously sniffed those who sniffed him, but was more interested in checking out the space, the water bowl and the humans than in playing with the other dogs. We’d been there a full hour before he even chased another dog — all of whom were playing energetically with each other.

Dee Dee, a beagle, and Bailey, a whippet mix, (both pictured atop this post) had great play stances and used them often: Butts pointed skyward, front legs stretched all the way out, heads lowered. It, in the canine world, is a universal signal, a way of saying “You don’t need to be afraid of me, this is all in good fun, it’s playtime, let’s go.”

I can think of no counterpart when it comes to human body language — no gesture or stance we have that is as easily noticeable and understood. The handshake? No, that’s just standard procedure, basic manners. Perhaps the one that came closest was the peace sign.

Rather than having a universal play stance, we resort to words, which often only make things more confusing. We try to make sense of subtle body language and interpret what we think are queues, neither of which we’re that good at, either.

All that could be resolved if we only had a human play stance — a position we could place our bodies in that signifies we’re open to getting to know a fellow human.

We’ve got the war stance down. We all know the fighting stance, or at least enough to put our dukes up. But there’s no simple gesture or motion we humans can make — at least not without possibility of criminal charges or restraining orders – that sends a signal that peace, harmony and fun are ahead.

We can’t, without repercussions, do the butt-sniffing thing. We can’t, of course, go around peeing on each other’s pee.

But why can’t we come up with a play stance — one that says I’m open to getting to know you better, and perhaps even frolicking a bit?

Because that would be too easy for a species as complex as ours? Too honest? Too direct?

It was easier when we were children. A simple ”Wanna play?” sufficed. Somehow, on the way to becoming adults, we started opting instead for far less direct, far stupider comments, like “Do you come here often?” and “What’s your sign?”

Adopting a play stance for the human race, at this point – with all that we have evolved, with how sophisticated and suspicious and manipulative we as a society have become — would be difficult. It might be too late.

Two thumbs up and a grin? Standing with arms outstretched, knees bent, while waving people toward you? Most anything I can come up to signal you are accepting new people into your life would have the exact opposite effect, and send them running.

In the final analysis, being human, maybe we’re stuck with words, and small talk, and being less straightforward, sincere and, quite likely, pure of heart and motive than dogs.

Ace will make friends his way, and I will make friends mine (which is most often with his help). But between him and my conversational skills, I’ll be fine. And by the way, do you come here often?

(Story and photos by John Woestendiek)

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