Sunny with a chance of squirrels


Bella sittingWhat is going on in that furry little head of yours? I was standing on the porch one day last fall watching Bella, our terrier-cross dog, and latest addition to the Chadwick pack. She was watching Diego, our ginger tom cat who was watching something in the trees. Bella stared, then turned to look where Diego was looking. Together they stared at something I couldn’t see, but which captivated them to the point of obsession.

Heads moved in unison as they stared, fixated. Tails twitched in syncopation.  I looked, unable to see what fascinated them. Suddenly they gave up, again in unison, and looked elsewhere.

Humans are often just befuddled observers of this stuff. Most of my thoughts about pets these days begin with the phrase “What the hell…?” I ask myself over and over what is in that furry head. Pick a furry head – we have four cats and two dogs (our max was once three dogs, seven cats and 23 ferrets, so this is a small pack… most of whom were abandoned or rescue animals, by the way, and they all had a good life within our walls).

Bella at fireplaceThought I understood dogs fairly well, I did. Thought I had had enough experience with all sorts of breeds and varieties. After all, I studied animal behaviour for years;read dozens of books on dogs and their inner selves. Spoke at length to breeders, animal behaviourists, dog trainers and owners.

But as much as you think you know, a lot of it is guesswork. Or just anecdotal experience that doesn’t apply to other dogs. There are days when I think dog behaviour is a pseudoscience like astrology or phrenology: just hot air and codswallop.

Bella reminds me daily that there are new horizons of dogdom I have yet to comprehend. She’s a delight, but sometimes as crazy as a bag full of bloggers.

It’s been nine months since we got her and we’re still learning her ways. When winter arrived, we learned much to our surprise that she likes snow. loves it, in fact, and will happily charge into drifts that almost swallow her.

She also likes to eat snow. A lot. Can hardly walk 10 metres without her snapping up some snow to crunch on. Crazy dog, for a dog that loves the heat so much she sits in front of the fireplace when it’s on. Not the roll-in-the-snow every few metres that Sophie likes, but loves to run and play in it anyway.

And she tries to climb trees when she sees a squirrel in one. I’d never seen a dog trying to climb up a tree before, but she just doesn’t get it that it isn’t happening.

Sophie and BellaAbsolutely fearless, charges ahead everywhere, curious as a cat to the point of being nosy – Bella has to investigate everything. Deeply affectionate, loves us but also likes other people and likes to greet them when we’re out walking. Which earns her the frequently-used name, “Bella, down!”

Smart and mostly obedient, but easily distracted by movement, scent or sound. When that terrier brain stem takes over, she’s off like a flash. Has to be on a leash all the time or she’s gone before we can stutter out “stop!”

Which she ignores until the terrier-adrenaline loses its grip.

Snuggles on the couch against my legs while we’re watching a movie. Likes to sleep against me at night, or behind me on the chair when I’m working on the computer. Sometimes when she’s there, she sits up, her paws braced against me so she can sit and watch through the window, or check out the cats on the table. Anything moves outside – a squirrel in a tree outside the window – and she perks up. Barks at everything.

Love toys and proudly presents her latest squeakie to us to encourage us to play tug-of-war or toss-the-toy. Loves toys to distraction sometimes, but is hard on them: chews them apart within weeks, sometimes even days.

Bella rollingDogs sometimes make sense, but not always. Who really knows why they do what they do, why they trigger on some things – scents, sounds, sight? – why they bark, why they don’t bark? Why they are happy to see another dog on their walk, but the next one makes them crazy barking monsters straining at the leash.

Yeah, I get the theory: dogs are a combination of inherited wolf-pack genetics and instinct coupled with behaviour selected to represent the breed, as well as the sometimes unfortunate randomness of genetic mixing from backyard encounters created by less-scrupulous breeders who sell puppies like commodities.

Plus the behaviour adopted from its environment. Clues they pick up from their human pack members: seeing, hearing and (importantly) smelling how we react to sounds, lights, movement, strangers, food… dogs have as complex and varied personalities as humans. One dog breed site says of the JRT breed:

The Jack Russell Terrier is a cheerful, merry, devoted and loving dog. It is spirited and obedient, yet absolutely fearless. Careful and amusing, he enjoys games and playing with toys… They are intelligent, and if you let them take an inch, they can become willful and determined to take a mile… Do not let this little dog fall into Small Dog Syndrome, where he believes he is pack leader to all humans… It has strong hunting instincts (stronger than your average terrier) and should not be trusted with other small animals. This hunting dog likes to chase, explore, bark and dig. Only let it off lead if it is well trained or in a safe area. Will get restless and destructive if it does not receive enough exercise and activities to occupy its keen mind. Jack Russells climb, which means they can climb over a fence; they also jump. A Jack that stands 12 inches high can easily jump five feet.

Sophie rollingAnd I understand that we tend to anthromorphize their behaviour so it makes sense to us, but most of the time what we ascribe to animals is just wishful thinking. Does Sophie roll so much for pleasure? To scratch an itch? Or for some reason we can’t discern? Are the motions and noises she makes when rolling, her facial and paw gestures, signs of pleasure or something else?

Sophie reacts to my harmonica playing by howling or barking, leaving the room as if it hurts her ears. Bella ignores it, maybe cocks a head at it with curiousity, but shows no discomfort. Neither react in any way to my ukulele playing (canine Philistines, perhaps?).

Bella’s one of those odd mixes of breeds. She is – like most of our pets – a rescue dog surrendered to the Humane Society last summer because her owners (and owners of two other dogs) faced ongoing legal issues which may have been related to their pets.

She’s muscular and long, like a JRT, so I sometimes call her Tubular Bella.

Sophie and Bella

Supposedly she is a mix of Jack Russell terrier (JRT) and Chihuahua. The JRT clearly is the dominant gene. Damn, I was hoping the Chihuahua would be… but she’s smart, affectionate and obedient. Most of the time. Well, a good portion of the time when she’s awake and on the leash and there’s nothing moving within a kilometer. Then she’s like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil. All spit and fury, bark and bluster, scrabbling and straining to get at whatever moved.

Ever see the movie Spiderwick? Bella’s like that pig-creature, Hogsqueal, that gets easily and obsessively distracted by birds. Except for Bella it’s moths, leaves, birds, squirrels. cats, toys, dogs, anyone on the street, sounds, rain, water and wind that distract her…


Sophie, our aging Sheltie-cross is calm, intelligent, and obedient. Did I mention calm? We got Bella with the hope that it would engage Sophie and get her more active. Instead, it has created a schizophrenic situation where slow and steady Sophie plods along and frenetic, bouncing, hyperactive Bella is like a Wii game at the end of the other leash.

You’ll often see me walking down the sidewalk with them; leashes stretched in both directions. Bella straining ahead out front, Sophie ambling slowly behind. I call them my political pups: Bella is the liberal – always rushing ahead of me to explore, to experience new things. Sophie the cautious, slow, conservative, always behind me by a few unhurried steps.

I spent a lot of time learning and reading about dog behaviour over the years. When I worked at the Toronto Humane Society as “adoption support manager” and in-house animal behaviourist, I studied the heck out of the subject and read every book I could find on it. Plus I helped organize and run the dog training sessions. It was a lot like being a “psychic” – often little more than a crude guessing game why animals behave like they do.

And as any pet owner can tell you, no two cats, dogs or ferrets behave alike. No two humans behave alike, so why should we expect it of animals?

Ah well, what would a house be without pets? Certainly much impoverished, by our standards. Crazy or not, we love them all.

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