IT TAKES COURAGE TO STOP PUPPY PROFILING

In the fall of 2002, I decided that there were several vital things missing from my life. One was a vintage pick-up truck and the other was a pair of Bloodhounds. Let me be perfectly clear: I needed neither beast nor machine. Nonetheless, I thought these items had the innate power to make me instantly happy.

You see, about that same time, I had watched a movie called Sweet Home Alabama. In the film, Josh Lucas lived in this great cabin in the Alabama woods, was married to Reese Witherspoon (although I don’t think she was all that happy with him), owned a vintage Chevy pick-up truck and cared for two of the most handsome Bloodhounds I have ever seen. These Bloodhounds followed him around adoringly and it seemed pretty obvious to me that if I could just have some of the things Lucas had managed to collect in the movie, then my life would be dramatically improved. Ms. Witherspoon was not on my speed dial and it would be a difficult to commute from a rural Alabama cabin to my job in Kansas. As a result, I just pestered my wife about needing a Bloodhound or two, and spent more than a few hours searching the classified ads for vintage pick-up trucks.

I can’t seem to find the right word for the obviously preposterous notion that some object would turn me into a middle aged, Kansas version, of Josh Lucas, so I’ll just call it the Sweet Home Alabama Effect. I suppose we all do it. We get it in our heads that if we just “owned” or possessed a certain thing, then our life would be better. I’ve heard some people call these objects their “got-to-haves.” Christmas certainly feeds into this principal and encourages us to scurry about trying to find the perfect got-to-have for those we love. Marketing experts use the Sweet Home Alabama Effect to convince us that our happiness turns on the purchase of a certain brand of car, furniture, shoes, jewelry, or other gizmo. And, the truth is, that we dog lovers too easily come to believe that it takes a Dachshund or a Bloodhound to really hang our canine moon.

As we get older, life eventually teaches us that the got-to-haves really don’t work. It would be nice if they did, but they don’t. I have to admit that years later I did finally get around to buying a vintage truck. It’s nice. It sits in the garage most of the time. It’s pretty good for family photos and that’s about it. I should have known better. I still don’t look like Josh Lucas and Reese hasn’t been calling me either. To my credit, I never got the Bloodhound, though, and here is part of the reason why: trying to possess a dog, person or other living thing as an object to make us happy, or feel better about ourselves, is far worse than just being immature or superficial– it’s down right harmful. Which causes me to coin another word–again for the simple reason that I don’t know if the right word yet exists for what I am trying to communicate—and that word is puppy profiler.

Puppy Profilers have an attitude that I just “got-to-have” a particular breed of dog. Thinking you got-to-have a blue eyed blond (I am of course referring to a Collie here and not Reese Witherspoon) can be a big mistake. It causes people to get the wrong dog for their circumstances and disaster can ensue. It also causes breeders to churn out endless number of Labs, Poodles and other popular breeds while approximately 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 perfectly adoptable dogs are needlessly euthanized every year in America’s animal shelters,according to the Humane Society of the United States Overpopulation Estimates.

This is the tragic result of puppy profiling. There are lots of us puppy profilers running around out there in the world and we all need to mend our ways. The first step in the process is being aware that we do it, and being honest enough to admit that it’s really more than just being silly, it’s dead wrong. I won’t pretend for a minute that I am fully over this affliction. In fact, even though I know better, I still feel like I somehow deserve a handsome dog. For me, the compromise was to give up on a Bloodhound and just finding a darn fine looking shelter dog.

That’s Rudy. He’s great and I love him, but someday, maybe, the next dog, I’ll get totally past thinking my dog needs to have some look to be lovable. As they say, one step at a time. Coming to my own defense, getting past thinking that we have to have a dog with a certain look is not as easy as it ought to be. It’s not for me, and perhaps not for you, or most anyone else, either. This gets to me a very courageous lady I met once several years ago. I credit her for really getting me to think about mending my puppy-profiling, Bloodhound-seeking, mind set.

This lady showed up at my house once on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t remember now why she had stopped by. She was a foster parent for a whole troop of dogs and I think she just wanted to share some ideas about fostering–a cause she knew to be dear to us both. She told me she liked to bring her dogs with her when she made these little visits. It was her hope that some new friend might adopt one of her dogs. She told me it didn’t happen that often, but she kept trying. You see, she fostered unattractive dogs. She assured me that each of her dogs–as a result of their appearance alone — had been branded as unadoptable. This is a death sentence for most shelter dogs. But for her rescue efforts, they would have all been put down.

She had made it her life passion to show others, like me, how little appearance really mattered when it comes to dogs (or much of anything else for that matter). Her dogs were affectionate, obedient and a pleasure to be around. Within five minutes, I forgot about their curled lips, weight problems, inferior coats, flawed confirmations, out of whack proportions and all the other trivial defects of appearance that had taken root in their lives and, if truth be known, take root in ours, too. It’s been a long time since I respected anyone more than I did that lady. She opened my droopy, wrinkled eyelids to the truth.

Over the years, whether on a mountain trail or on a suburban sidewalk, I often stop and congratulate people for their pets. I bend down and say things like, “Aren’t you a handsome fellow!” The dogs wag their tails and the people swell up with pride and then move on. Now I like to stop and greet the less showy dogs on the trail. I look at their people. When I ask about the fine animal on the end of the lead, what they tell me has little to do with pedigree or appearance. Instead, I have come to expect, “She’s a fine dog, a rescue, we got her at…” These are the people who truly deserve our respect.

Caring for a handsome dog does not take an ounce of courage nor does it in any way warrant our admiration. Sorry, Josh, but that’s the way it is. I hope someday that we meet on the trail. We’ll observe each other’s less than regal dogs. You tell me where you rescued your dog and I’ll tell you where I rescued mine. We’ll agree that they’re both great dogs. We’ll be reformed puppy profilers, you and me, and the world will be a better place for it.

In A Christmas Home, which will be released on October 30, I tell a story of a mixed breed shelter dog, Gracie, who becomes a service dog and makes a contribution from her heart to all the people she serves and the greater world at large.

‘CHRISTMAS WITH TUCKER’ IN THE USA TODAY

The USA Today Holiday Gift Guide recently released their picks of books that truly capture the Holiday Spirit this Christmas, and ‘Christmas with Tucker’ is one of them!

View the full article on USAToday.com!

A REVIEW BY BEST FRIENDS MAGAZINE

“In this prequel to A Dog Named Christmas, Kincaid spins an immensely satisfying coming-of-age tale about how 12-year-old George McCray, mourning his father’s recent death from a tractor accident, finds solace in befriending a neglected Irish setter named Tucker…Although I am well aware that Christmas titles flood bookstores each December 1, I also know that Christmas with Tucker, along with the author’s earlier novel, should rise above the literary tinsel and glitz to become a holiday classic.”

- Best Friends

PROLOGUE TO CHRISTMAS WITH TUCKER – via petfinder.com

From Christmas with Tucker: Prologue

With one paw in the wild and another scratching at the door of humanity, dogs are caught in an awkward spot. It misses the mark to describe a dog as just an animal. We recognize that our pets can be both beasts and evolved life-forms keenly attuned to human needs. Country dogs may be more appreciated for their animal nature — hunting, herding, and guarding — while city dogs are cherished for their humanlike ability to expertly deliver companionship and unbridled affection.

From time to time, for a lucky few of us, we come across a dog that seems to move naturally back and forth from one world to the other. Such a dog can howl at the distant coyote, hunt for his own food, refuse to back down from a charging adversary, and run for hours on end with equal glee under snow or sun. In an animal like this, we respect the sheer aliveness that radiates from his eyes. And, when the day’s work is done, he’ll lie down by our feet, content. For this dog, you know that there is nowhere he would rather be than with you. This dog is complete in both worlds. He models for us how to simultaneously be good and alive — animal and angel.

Frank Thorne owned this kind of dog. He received the 4-year-old Irish setter in exchange for repairs he made to an old tractor. The owner of the broken-down machine had inherited the tractor and the dog from his grandfather. He kept a picture in his wallet of the old man standing beside that proud setter, taken after one of their weekend hunting trips. The snapshot was good enough — he had no room for a dog.

Thorne was too sick, too broken, and too mired in personal problems to know the value of his bargain. The setter spent most of his days tied up outside on a chain attached to a giant steel corkscrew that tightened into a clay loam, binding him to the ground like concrete.

Tethered, he could only watch wild turkeys amble across the meadow, roosting to a setting sun, or rabbits venture from their winter thicket as snow danced across Thorne’s barnyard. The dog yearned to experience all that was outside the radius of his 24-foot circle.

From time to time, when Thorne had better days, he would take the dog for rides in the truck, long jaunts along the banks of Kill Creek, or just let him into his modest, run-down house to enjoy warm evenings by the fire that glowed in an old potbellied stove. Thorne was a lonely man incapable of realizing a friendship with the dog or anything else.

Not long after his arrival, the dog saw a boy walking across the field to the west. He pulled on the chain, whined, and pulled again. His tail wagged, but there was no give. In the late afternoons, before Thorne returned home, he could hear a school bus full of children stop at the top of the hill. The same boy he had seen walking through the fields was on the bus, too.

He saw or heard the boy almost every day until June. As the summer progressed, the boy ventured out less frequently. By August, he did not come out at all. When he heard the boy in the yard, the dog could tell that the boy’s energy was different. There was less laughter on the hill.

Things grew worse with the man, too.

Thorne stopped leaving the house and a putrid odor seeped from his pores. The dog knew the smell. He recognized it from his previous owner, who ran a tavern near the city. October turned to November and Thorne became less attentive to the dog’s needs. The setter lost weight and the sheen vanished from his red coat. As hunger set in, his disposition naturally deteriorated. He paced nervously.

One day in November, around 3:00 p.m., though it was still some distance away, he could hear Thorne’s truck rapidly approaching home. There was another sound farther in the distance that caused pain in the dog’s ears. He whined and tried to bury his head between his paws as it grew nearer. It was the sound of sirens.

Impervious to his own discomfort, he wagged his tail excitedly as Thorne’s truck screeched on its brakes and turned wildly into the driveway. The truck fishtailed to a stop not 10 feet from the dog’s run.

The dog did not know what to expect from this tall, gaunt man. In the past, he was affectionate and seemed to value the dog, but lately his master treated him like an inconvenient responsibility. Thorne stumbled out of the truck and, without bothering to shut the door, fell to the ground. This is the position from which humans often play with dogs, so the dog grew excited and ached for a greeting, some acknowledgment of his existence, but there was none. Instead, Thorne pulled himself up, brushed the dirt from his clothes, and made sure the package he so carefully clutched in his hands was still intact.

The pain in the dog’s ears grew more severe as the sirens grew closer, but still all he wanted was to be with the man. He ran excitedly at the end of the chain and barked for attention.

It was still early in the afternoon, but not too early for the ubiquitous bottle in the brown paper sack, the bottle that held the scent that the dog now associated with his master. Thorne gripped the sack in his left hand like a lion trainer clutches the whip that separates him from certain death. The red setter whined again and even let out a little yelp, but Thorne still ignored him. Instead, he walked into the house and slammed the front door behind him.

Soon more cars pulled into the driveway; two of them carried the painful siren. The noise ended when the drivers turned off their engines, got out of their cars, and approached the master’s house.

The dog was confused. It was rare for other people to enter his area. The strangers’ voices seemed nervous and there was a scent in the air that he associated with danger. The dog barked furiously and pulled at the chain.

The uniformed men talked to the dog. They said that they would not hurt him, but still they stayed well away from his run as they approached the house, and he could sense their aggressive postures. He was prepared to lay down his life to defend Thorne from this strange new threat.

The men banged on Thorne’s old front door. The dog desperately threw all of his weight at the chain, but still it did not give.

A few moments later, one of the men led his master out of the house in handcuffs, locked behind his back. The dog sniffed the air to assess the potential for danger. There was no odor of blood, but the smell of alcohol, stale and sour, clung to his master. Thorne’s head hung down as he walked toward the cars. He said nothing to his dog as he was shoved into the patrol car.

An older man had arrived at the scene and he spoke to the uniformed men in a voice that the dog recognized; he had heard it before from the top of the hill. There was no fear in this one.

The old man went to his truck and pulled out a half-eaten bologna sandwich and tossed it to the dog, eyeing him from a safe distance as the setter devoured the human food. The man approached him, and the dog hunkered down in fear — still uncomfortable with a stranger entering his space. It was not difficult for the dog to trust the old man, who spoke in a deep, soothing tone and brought him food when no one else had. Tired, and exhausted from trying to take care of his master, he rested on the ground. When the man reached out to pet him, he calmed to his touch and rolled onto his back in a submissive gesture.

The old man stood and looked west. The sky was darkening. A difficult winter would soon be upon them.

ARE DOGS HAPPIER INDOORS OR OUTDOORS – via petfinder.com

I grew up in rural Kansas with three rules. The first two were easy: Be truthful. Respect others. The third one was harder to figure: Humans on the inside and animals on the outside. Each species had its own unique place. Cows were in the pasture, horses in the paddock and dogs on the back porch or in their doghouse.

My grandfather, a dog lover to the core, would have thought it cruel to keep a dog locked up inside a house, constrained from his dog responsibilities: chasing rabbits, swimming in the pond, howling with the local coyotes, napping under a shade tree, or just waiting for my grandfather to come in from a hard day’s toil in the fields. In his eyes, a dog was innately happier when residing in the wild kingdom.

Although I wasn’t there, I think my wife — a certified city girl — probably grew up with similar rules, with one difference: Telling the truth and being kind to others are good ideas, but when it comes to the third rule, dogs always belong on the inside, preferably on your lap.

Perhaps dogs are torn, too. After all, they must traverse back and forth, surviving in both animal and human territories.

What is the best environment for a dog? Are dogs, like other domesticated animals, perfectly suited to spending most of their time living out of doors? Or have the human and canine species so evolved, side by side, that Fido is now part of our human pack, fit to be accorded space, not only within our hearts, but also in our homes?

In my soon-to-be-released novel, Christmas with Tucker, a prequel to A Dog Named Christmas, I put the issue of what makes a proper home front and center.

Over the coming weeks, Petfinder will be sharing a few chapters from the book with you. We want to use this forum to encourage discussion among Petfinder friends over this important question: Where does a dog belong?

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but to kick off the discussion, I think we can agree on a few assumptions:

First, dogs, like humans, are emotionally driven creatures. They too experience fear, anger, love, loneliness, joy and jealousy — to mention only a very few emotions. Neurologists would support us in this assumption by pointing out that dogs, humans and other mammals are all endowed with a limbic brain, which is where emotions originate.

Second, we now understand that staying healthy is not just about eating right and exercising. Being healthy is also about establishing “limbic connections,” or emotional ties, with our fellow mammals. There is a great deal of research in this area, but researchers have come to an interesting conclusion that won’t be surprising to pet lovers: The sense of connection that is so important to our well-being can be established between two members of the same species (human to human) or between two members of different mammal species (human to dog or goat to horse).

What does this mean to the inside-or-outside debate? Are the city folks right, or does rural wisdom prevail?

To live a healthy life, dogs and humans need to do the same things: Eat right, exercise and stay connected. If you spend most of your life outdoors, like my grandfather, then by all means have your dog outdoors with you. Romp, roam and be companions. But if, like most of us, your leisure time tends to take place on a sofa and not in a canoe, then inside is where your dog belongs.

However — and I would be interested in knowing what others think — I don’t necessarily conclude that a pet can’t, like us, benefit from some “alone time.” Is it just a matter of degree or frequency? Do individual species have varying emotional needs just like we do? How do puppies differ from adult dogs? How do cats differ from dogs? Are responsible pet parents like responsible parents of children — fostering independence and not dependence in their young? I don’t know the answers, but these are interesting questions for pet lovers to consider.

Still, chances are you’ll rarely go wrong by opening the door and letting your pet inside or, if he’s outside, getting up and joining him. “Beside you” may very well be the best answer to the outside-or-inside debate.

A Dog Named Christmas by Greg Kincaid
 
Christmas With Tucker by Greg Kincaid