Live and Learn

What Travvy and I saw as we set out on our walk this morning

What Travvy and I saw as we set out on our walk this morning

Yesterday it snowed. Yesterday was a gray day. The snow was wet and there wasn’t much of it.

20131211 fire laneThis morning it sparkled. The snow was both pristine and easy to walk in. What’s not to like?

Snow reveals the passage of birds and small animals that ordinarily go undetected by my untutored eye. It took no tutoring at all to spot the motor vehicle tracks in a place where motor vehicles are not welcome: the bike path.

At the edge of the fire lane, the vehicle stopped, backed up, and headed down the fire lane. My untutored eye could figure out this much but not what kind of vehicle it was or what it was doing there. Shotgun deer season is still on. It could have been hunters, but this would be unusual: hunters usually park by the side of the road or in a handy trailhead then walk into the woods. Emergency vehicle? Law enforcement? Inquiring minds want to know, sorta, but not enough to follow the tracks.

My buddy and I turned right and followed the edge of the field toward Old County Road. Up ahead a black Lab wearing a blaze orange vest approached. Some distance behind him walked a man. The dog was not on a leash. That struck me as a little odd: deck your dog out in orange for shotgun season but let him run off-leash a literal stone’s throw from the state forest?

Travvy on the alert

Travvy on the alert

Trav’s generally friendly but he’s also reactive and 80 pounds of bouncing malamute is a handful even with no snow on the ground. I know the drill: call him to heel — he was on his Flexi — and bite off a big chunk of string cheese from the tube in my pocket and put it in my mouth. String cheese makes me more interesting to Trav than almost anything else in the world, and it’s easier to dole string cheese out of my mouth than out of my pocket.

The Lab was now lying sphinx-style, showing no signs of aggression. His owner had almost caught up. “He’s friendly,” the guy called.

I’ve heard this so often that my groan was strictly internal.

At that point the Lab could contain himself no longer. He broke his stay and rushed up to and past us. Whereupon Trav could barely contain himself and tried to follow. A couple of words and a piece of string cheese got his attention back.

“He’s friendly,” the man repeated.

I’d already figured that out. The man seemed friendly too, which is why I was still smiling when I glanced down at Trav and said, “He’s reactive, and I’ve got a sort of gimpy knee.” I don’t generally cop to this, but it’s been true since my encounter with Lyme disease last summer. I did not want to be broadsided either by Trav or by an exuberant Lab of similar size.

20131211 fuzzy butt

Same fuzzy butt, different trail

“Oh, OK,” said the man, and got his dog by the collar. They went on their way. Trav and I went on ours.

We’ve had dozens of encounters like this. Maybe hundreds. “He’s friendly,” says the other dog owner, as if his or her dog were the only variable in the situation. I used to say, “Mine’s not,” but then I stopped. One, it wasn’t true, and two, putting the word out that your large, wolfish-looking dog isn’t friendly might lead to trouble down the road. What to say instead? Often I say “My guy’s reactive,” as I did this morning, but people who understand what “reactive” means generally have some dog-training experience, in which case they’re not letting their dog rush up to mine in the first place.

The gimpy-knee gambit, which I’d never used before, might have possibilities. True, I look too sturdy to be knocked to the ground by anything smaller than a charging Newfoundland, but the possibility of bodily injury — and consequent lawsuits? — might stick in people’s minds when they encounter someone smaller or more fragile-looking.

This was a good-sized branch when Travvy first invited me to play tug with it. Several tug games later, it's well on it's way to becoming a stick.

This was a good-sized branch when Travvy first invited me to play tug with it. Several tug games later, it’s well on it’s way to becoming a stick.

People with some dog-training experience, especially those who have experience with reactive dogs, bemoan the cluelessness of dog owners who let their dogs run loose in public places. “She’ll come when I call,” these owners will say as you approach, then in about 95 percent of all instances they’ll proceed to demonstrate that this is not true. Whereupon they add, perhaps a little sheepishly, “She’s friendly.”

I’ve been among the bemoaners and almost surely will be again. But I have to admit that before Travvy I was just as clueless. It took firsthand experience to give me a clue.

Ain’t that the way with just about everything? I thought as I walked down the field and into the woods. Trav sniffed happily at tufts of grass, peed on promising tree trunks, and pounced on voles — real or imaginary I don’t know, because they all got away. Possibilities remain remote and maybe even unimaginable till they happen up close and personal.

Lately I’ve been thinking this about health insurance. If you’ve done time in the ranks of the uninsured or underinsured, if you’ve stayed in a job you loathed for fear of losing your insurance, if you’ve ever been denied access to needed treatment, you probably get why the Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction, even if you aren’t happy with all the specifics.

People who are dead-set against the very idea of it? On one hand, I don’t understand them. OK, so they’ve been lucky: they’re covered, they’ve always been covered, they’ve never feared losing their coverage. Don’t they know anyone who hasn’t been so lucky? Can’t they imagine . . . ?

I can imagine not knowing where my next meal is coming from, even though I’ve never been that broke.

But I couldn’t imagine what canine reactivity looked like until I found myself living with a reactive dog.

20131213 panorama 2


About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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6 Responses to Live and Learn

  1. Susan Robinson says:

    Oh boy, is this familiar. I hate to be told someone else’s dog is friendly. For one thing it means that if anything bad happens, it’s established that it’s my dog’s fault. It also means, as you imply, that the other person doesn’t need to be responsible with such a responsible dog. I imagine that any dog or person can get pissed off and show it if treated weirdly enough. Also, around here I don’t expect people to know “reactive” or to admit they don’t. I want some surefire ideal way to answer “my dog’s friendly,” but I’m not sure it exists for people living in the friendly dog bubble.


    • I’m not sure either, but check out DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space). Their website — — has some good ideas and resources. They’re on Facebook too. What I’ve learned with Travvy is that though it would be really nice if everybody else in the world “got it,” the burden is on me to keep him comfortable. String cheese really helps. Anything that keeps your nervous dog’s attention on you instead of on the scary thing that’s happening over there.


  2. Sharon Stewart says:

    So smart to have cheese strings with you! It could have turned out badly.

    Does sitting like a sphinx mean “You win” to another dog?

    Beautiful pics, BTW. I almost envy you and your winter walks. You must be so healthy and in great shape (gimpy knee notwithstanding).


    • The sphinx sit/down seems to mean “I mean you no harm” rather than “You win.” That would be going belly up. From sphinx position it’s easy to get up and lunge. From belly-up it’s not.

      I’m healthy and in pretty good shape, and the first doctor who tells me I shouldn’t worry about my gimpy knee because I’m 62 is going to hear some serious snarling.

      I’ve always got treats on me. Usually string cheese in one pocket, mini biscuits in another, and a bait bag slung over my shoulder. Trav will walk by chickens and ignore cats for string cheese. I take it very, very seriously.


      • Sharon Stewart says:

        What’s a bait bag?


      • A bait bag is a pouch for carrying dog treats in. Some people clip them to their belts. I tied a rawhide thong to mine and wear it over my shoulder. They’re like portable pockets. You don’t have to remember to take the treats out of your pockets before you throw your jeans in the wash. 🙂


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