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I have low dog-owner self-esteem

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The other day I was hiking up the dog-friendly Makapu‘u Lighthouse Trail with my three dogs — we affectionally call the Ratter Pack — and I was reminded about a feeling I used to get at the dog park.

That my dogs aren’t good dogs. And that meant I wasn’t a good owner, either.

Let me back it up: When I first got Sunny, a Pomeranian-toy fox terrier mix, six years ago, I couldn’t wait to take her to the Hawai‘i Kai Dog Park. I was living in the area, newly single with a lot of free time, and wanted to socialize my little puppy as soon as possible. Once we completed the necessary rounds of shots and I got her registered with the city, I started taking little Sunny Girl to the park every weekday afternoon.

The first time I walked into the park, I wasn’t sure how Sunny would react. At home, she was super mellow and quiet. She liked sitting on the couch with me, watching “Top Chef” and eating fried chicken. (Remember, I was single.) So I figured she would be a little shy around other dogs.

Man, was I wrong!

IMG_0190She literally bolted into the park, running and playing and greeting everyone — owners and dogs alike. She loved the freedom, the wide open space, and her canine playmates. And it showed.

And then she started barking.

She barked and barked, mostly at the bigger dogs on the other side of the fence, trying to get them to run with her. And her bark could be incessant if she wasn’t getting her way.

Most people didn’t seem to notice. But there were a few dog owners who would give me dirty looks, roll their eyes or make snide remarks like, “Oh, there goes that dog again.” Sunny didn’t seem to care, but it made me feel badly.

I kept thinking, “Is my dog really that bad?” “What does that say about me?” “Am I a bad dog owner?”

I tried to stop her from barking, which was frustrating, and other dog owners could tell how stressed out this was making me. My new friends at the dog park would tell me to let it go, she’s just barking, who cares? But I did. I didn’t like people judging me — or my dog, for that matter — by her fairly innocuous behavior at the park. She wasn’t biting any dogs, she didn’t play aggressively. In fact, she was just barking — to get other dogs to play. I knew she wasn’t a bad dog, but I kept feeling other people thought she was, and it was really getting to me.

Once, a man walked into the other park, the one for larger dogs, and Sunny started barking at his pooch, a very relaxed English bulldog. I was embarrassed. I ran over and tried to grab Sunny — she’s quick, I gotta say — and apologized over and over again to the man. He just smiled and waved his hand. “It’s what dogs do,” he said. “They bark. It’s a dog park. Let ‘em bark.”

That made me feel instantly better, to have someone — a stranger — tell me what I’ve been thinking all along: What’s the harm?

IMG_8607It’s taken years to get over that feeling that I’m not a good dog owner. I know that I am. I take them walking every day. We hike at least twice a week. We go to the beach, they get bathed weekly, I feed them healthier food than I eat myself.

Still, the looks and remarks can hurt.

As we were walking down the trail, we met up with a large pit bull mix and his owner. Two of my dogs barked at him — I warned the owner ahead of time — and her eyes just widened as we approached. She shook her head and mumbled something under her breath. When another couple approached us — my dogs were well done barking by then — she remarked to them that she was so happy she had a good dog. I wanted to both cry and throw my shoe at her head.

My dogs are happy, they sleep well, they play together, they’re healthy, they get a lot of exercise.

But yes, they bark.

They’re dogs.

Get over it.

At least, that’s what I have to tell myself.

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There’s a reason I named her Sunny

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Back in 2009, I was in a pretty bad place.

My boyfriend at the time had up and left me. I was just starting a new job. And I had recently moved into a 400-square-foot studio in Hawaii Kai that felt like it was on the other side of the planet.

So what did I do?

I got a dog.

Well, it didn’t happen exactly like that.

I had been talking about getting a dog before, but the place my boyfriend and I had been renting didn’t allow pets. So it really wasn’t an option. But when I had moved into the studio in Hawaii Kai, it was OK for me to have a pet, so I started looking around. Not seriously, just looking.

Then I saw her.

My friend had called, saying there was a little Pomeranian-toy fox terrier mix at a local pet store. All of her siblings had been adopted; she was still there — and had been for months. One of the workers had felt bad for her and was going to take her home since no one else wanted her.

But I did.

I went down to the pet store and, after she licked my nose while I cradled her in my arms, I knew I had to take her home.

I named her Sunny.

She was the sunshine in my life, exactly what I needed to pull out of the despair in which I had been sinking. I now had a reason to get up every morning, someone to make the little studio feel more homey. I started taking her to the Hawaii Kai Dog Park every afternoon, met a whole new group of friends — all of whom shared my love for dogs — and felt I had a purpose in life again.

Sunny saved me.

Of course, now I have two dogs — we added Indy to the family in 2010 — and life couldn’t be better. Sure, it’s more work taking care of two dogs. I can’t stay out late — need to walk the dogs — and I spend a lot of money on their vet visits, heartworm and flea medicines, grooming, kennel costs and high-quality food. But it’s been so worth it, especially for my mental well-being.

And I’m not alone.

Turns out, dog owners tend to be healthier — mentally and physically — than the average person.

Not only can dogs do amazing things like sniff out cancerous growths and detect low blood sugar levels, but they can act as “social catalysts,” helping people overcome feelings of loneliness and sadness, and force us to lead more healthful lifestyles.

Several studies have shown that dog owners have healthier statistics for several cardiovascular criteria, including blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels than non-owners. Additionally, studies have shown that heart attack sufferers who have pets have longer survival rates than those who don’t.

Good dog owners walk their dogs, and that’s exercise they might never have gotten without their canine companions. (I walk my dogs at least two miles a day, and we go on hikes just about every weekend.) And most owners tend to socialize with other dog owners, thereby improving or enhancing their social life. Even on walks, we meet folks who live in our neighborhoods.

I have to say, as much as I may complain about my dogs — Indy is obsessed with his ball and won’t let me sleep sometimes; Sunny can be aloof and bitchy — I couldn’t imagine my life without them. They are the reason I come home every night, the reason I get out of bed every morning, the reason I buy baby carrots and rawhide sticks.

If only they could cook and clean…

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Today’s happy shot

This is what I wake up to every morning. :)

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Today’s happy shot

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms with kids AND pets! Hey, we’re moms, too!

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Indy rolls over — huge milestone

I have very low expectations when it comes to my dogs.

I’m just glad they know their names — though Sunny has mastered the art of ignoring me, especially when she was in trouble.

So getting them to do advanced moves like sitting and staying is a huge achievement to me.

And when Indy finally learned how to roll over — a trick I had envied other owners teaching their honor-roll dogs — I had to share it with the world.

World, this is Indy’s first real attempt at rolling over. Sit back and enjoy. Applause if you feel compelled.

Indy and Sunny have their own Facebook page: www.facebook.com/hapadogs. Follow them @hapadogshawaii.

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