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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 32: Pets #12; Dog 8, Fern; Part Two

Wednesday, July 1, 2020



Fern Getting Ready for Her First Ride in a Convertible


Last month I spent too many words describing how we came to adopt Fern, so I didn’t write enough about our past 3½ years with her as part of our family.  So here it goes.

The Warrior
We thought that our geriatric Shepherd-Chow mix, Olive, needed a companion.  Olive did not agree.  On Easter, when we first introduced our new two-year old Belgian Tervuren mix, Fern, to Olive in the front yard, Olive considered the new addition through her cloudy eyes, then walked to the far side of the yard to sniff at a leaf.  No interest, but no animosity either.

Over the first few days the two dogs seemed to function well when they were together but there was very little interaction.  One afternoon, our daughter Aileen sat on the living room floor between the two dogs – both wanted to nuzzle her as she is the doggy-favorite.  She picked-up a squeaky toy to see if Olive would play with it – no interest.  Then she gave it to Fern.  Olive snarled and lunged at Fern biting her on the nose (she still has the scar).  Fern retaliated by chomping onto Olive’s neck and refusing to let go.  It took both Aileen and Kristen to separate them.  Fern was banished to her crate.  Olive got a trip to the vet and $150 worth of stitches.

After a few nights in her crate Kristen and I began to let Fern sleep in our room with Olive and us.  Olive would seem to purposely decide that her dog bed was whichever one Fern was on.  Fern would get up, sigh and move to the other bed without objection.  After several weeks Fern began to occasionally decide to not move, and on those nights, they would share a bed.  All seemed to be fine in dog land. 

A few months later, on the Thursday before  Labor Day,  I took the dogs for boarding at PetSmart while we went to St. Paul, MN to help Sean move into her new apartment for her new job, and then to Wichita, KS for the wedding of a family friend.  The schedule was this:
1. Drop off the dogs at PetSmart
2. Pick up the U-Haul
3. Load the U-Haul
4. Leave at dawn for St. Paul, 6 ¼ hours
5. Unload the trailer at Sean’s new place
6. Buy lots of new stuff
7. Clean the apartment
8. Return the trailer to U-Haul in St. Paul
9. Spend the night at a hotel
10. Clean the apartment more
11. Buy more stuff
12. Leave for Omaha, NE, 5 ¾ hours
13. Spend the night at Aileen’s apartment in Omaha
14. Leave for Wichita, 4 ¾ hours
15. Check in to a hotel
16. Nap, shower, change
17. Go to the wedding and reception
18. Return to the hotel
19. Leave for Omaha at dawn, 4 ¾ hours
20. Drop off Aileen in Omaha
21. Return to Joliet, 6 ¼ hours
23. Pick up the dogs at 7:00am when PetsMart opens
24. Bring the dogs home
25. Go to work
26. Nap at my desk.

There was not a single second to spare in this schedule.

When I dropped off the dogs on Thursday afternoon (Step 1) the clerk at PetSmart asked me a simple question, “One room or two?”  Then she added, “One room will save you $15 a night.”  I did some quick math, a $75 savings was the result. “One,” I responded.

Moving Sean was difficult since she was on the third floor with no elevator, but our son Richard showed-up from his place in Ames, IA (3 hours) to help right when I had run out of energy. Sean’s new place was great.  Then the wedding on the steps of the Kansas Aviation Museum was very cool and very special– but between the two events, on the drive from Omaha to Wichita, my cell phone rang over the hands-free.  The display on the dash read “PetsMart, Joliet.”  I pressed the answer button on my steering wheel.
“Good morning, this is Howard.”
“Good morning Mr. Hamilton this is  PetSmart in Joliet and we are boarding Fern and Olive for you.”
“That’s correct,” I responded.
“Fern attacked Olive and wouldn’t let go.  Both dogs are fine, but Olive needed stitches and is at the emergency vet.”
I received a partial accounting over the phone, then more when I picked-up Fern on Tuesday.  Both dogs had done well together, but on Sunday morning one of the staff walked a dachshund by the kennel.  The dachshund barked at Fern, Fern barked back and started jumping around the enclosure.  She stepped on Olive.  Olive bit Fern and Fern attacked in response and would not let go.  “She was vicious, but once they were separated, she seemed sorry.  But it was very frightening while she was attacking.  She would not quit!”
Neither the vet nor PetSmart would be open on Labor Day and we were 11 hours from home, so I would have to wait and get the dogs on Tuesday morning. 
At the emergency vet on Tuesday, Olive was fine.  She had a few stitches and a $550 bill.  I think I was more injured than she was!  Fern was contrite but the clerk at PetSmart was unhappy.  “She kept attacking!”  From that day until just a few months ago Fern would get a red collar when she stayed at PetSmart.  Red Collar dogs are aggressive and cannot play with other dogs.  Fern likes other dogs if they like her.  This made Fern sad.

Hugs and Counter Surfing
When I was younger and had less on my mind and more of my mind left, I would spend hours training our various dogs how to do different tricks.  It seemed like this became more difficult with each dog, but I think that the reality is that I just spent less time training them.  Our first two dogs, Ely then Echo were Belgian Groenendaels that we got as puppies.  Smart, attentive dogs with no “untraining” required.  Fern is essentially the same type of dog, and even though she needed some “untraining” because she was 2-years old when we got her, she has the same level of intelligence as the other Belgians and trains easily – plus the kids are all gone, and I have more time.  My favorite command, and hers, is “hug.”  When I am sitting, “hug” will get her to jump up and put her two front paws around my waist and bury her head into my side while I massage her fluffy mane.  When she just doesn’t feel like hefting her frame, she will still press her head against my thigh for her pet.  It is heart-melting. But training Fern MUST be positive.  If she gets any sense that I am trying to control her, she hides because she both loves and is afraid of me at the same time.  She is beginning to trust me more than she did at first, but our relationship is still a challenge at times.  She is never aggressive, just nervous and frightened – also heart-melting.

Although she will willingly comply with a command under most circumstances, she is smart enough to try to get away with things.  Her favorite misbehavior is counter surfing.  If we put food on the kitchen counter and leave the room, we might as well just put it in her food bowl.  She won’t beg for people food (other than popcorn), or take food from the table – but somehow she has decided that unattended food on the counter is intended for her, if you’re not looking.

She also uses counter surfing as a way of communicating displeasure with our behavior.  She expects us to go to work in the morning, but not on weekends, church is okay on Sunday as long as we are home by lunchtime.  She expects that when we come home in the evening that we will stay home.  If we are not home when we are supposed to be, she must misbehave to show us how wrong we were.  Her way of doing this is to take something off  the counter and place it in the exact center of the living room rug.  It can be a plate, a bowl, a piece of silverware, a grapefruit…but her favorite item is a half-full cup of water.  Several times we have come home to find a half-full cup of water sitting upright in the center of the living room.  Not a drop spilled.  It’s difficult to get mad at dexterity and brilliance.
One weekday afternoon, Kristen’s father brought a 16 oz paper cup full of sugary-sweet, bright red cherry tomatoes from his garden.  Kristen and I went grocery shopping after dinner, and I left the cup on the counter after snacking on a few of the juicy morsels.  When we returned the cup was standing upright in the center of the living room rug.  Only one tomato was left in the bottom of the cup.  It was green and hard. It’s difficult to get mad at discerning taste.

On a Friday evening, Aileen came home for the weekend and the three of us went to dinner at LaMex.  When Aileen is home, she must devote her entire attention to Fern because Fern loves her.  Therefore, going out to dinner must be punished.  Fern went into Aileen’s room, opened her overnight bag and found a jar of gummy Vitamin D jellies.  She chewed-off the lid, ate the jellies and left the jar conspicuously in the center of the bedroom doorway.  Nothing else in the bag was displaced. Aileen was angry, then concerned. 
She and I both started Googling and found enough partial answers to become more concerned.  We learned that a lethal dose of vitamin D in a mature dog can be as low as 2 mg/kg.  Fern weighs about 32 kg, which means that 64 mg would be deadly.  The bottle of gummies was almost new and would have contained up to 80 gummies at 2,500 IU (International Units) per gummy. If she ate 80, she would have ingested 200,000 IU of lethal vitamin D.  Neither of us could figure the conversion from IU to mg – but 200,000 IU seemed like a lot.  Aileen called the 24-hour emergency vet and they too were concerned, “Bring her in!” was the direction. 90 minutes and $350 later all we knew was that we were right to be concerned, and we needed to take her in for more blood tests in the morning to see how quickly her kidneys were failing.  No one, except Fern, slept well that night.

In the morning I called our regular veterinarian.  Dr. Ron was out of town, but Dr. Alaina Z. could see her (she is now our regular vet since Ron has since retired). Aileen and I took Fern to Dr. Z’s clinic.  She listened to our story, read the other vet’s report and recommendations, studied the empty vitamin bottle, and took Fern to the back room to draw some blood.  I could tell that she was thinking as she led Fern through the back door of the exam room.  She and Fern returned in about 15 minutes, but it seemed like 15 hours.  Both the Doctor and dog were smiling.  “I didn’t take a blood test.  I called Poison Control, and she did not ingest a harmful dose of Vitamin D.  It wasn’t even close.”  There was no charge for this visit, but it was worth infinitely more than the $350 we spent at the other vet! 
For you math geeks, there are 40 mcg/IU in Vitamin D3.  This means that if Fern had snarfed down a full bottle of 80, 2,500 IU pills, she would have only received a dose of 5 mg.   Less than 8% of a fatal dose of 64 mg.  Dr. Z’s parting advice was, “She’s fine, but don’t let her do it again.”
What did I learn?  This dog is getting expensive, fast!

Don’t Leave Me!
We never have to worry about Fern running away (knock on wood!).  She is absolutely terrified that she will get left (see last month’s blog), so she always stays close.  On our first trip with her to our family cabin in Ely, Minnesota we would let her out to “do her duty” each morning, and she would quickly return to the kitchen door.  A few days later we learned where her duties had been done.
The car was fully encircled by dog poop.  We had two theories:
1. Fern had created a wall of stink that you could not cross, therefore making it impossible to leave; and/or
2. She had set a row of land mines, making it was impossible to get to the car without stepping into a pile of dog crap.  Therefore, if we drove away without her, our noses would quickly remind us that we had left her behind.

The Guardian
To all of my neighbors, and all of the socially-distant walkers, joggers, bike riders and (God forbid) dog walkers that form the daily parade past our house in the woods, I apologize.  Fern does not want to attack you; she just wants you to know that if you are going to attack us that you will have to deal with her first.  We have an invisible fence, and she sits on the edge waiting for invaders that must be barked at.  Amazon drivers have us on their speed dial.  Even though our UPS driver is a neighbor and knows her, he won’t get out of the truck when she is out. One of the regular dog walkers has a dachshund that begins barking when it rounds the corner a couple hundred feet away, looking forward to the battle.  Most dachshunds do not like Fern, and she loves to return the insulting barks.
She does the same thing when she is inside.  She stands watch at the picture window in the kitchen waiting for the next would-be intruder at which to bark.  We have a very nice doorbell, please don’t use it.  Don’t knock either.  Fern has already let us know that you are approaching, and a knock or ring just flips her switch and makes her more insane.

We have learned to thank her for the warnings and acknowledge that she is doing her job and we have heard her.  I know it makes us sound like namby-pamby soccer moms.  “We were being attacked by the Hamilton’s guard beast, and all I hear those Hamiltons saying is, ‘Good dog Fern! Thank you!’  The Hamiltons are disgusting wimps.”  About half of the time a “thank you” will calm her down a little.  The rest of the time, or if you are walking a dachshund, the only way to stop her is for you to keep moving.  I’m sorry – we have spent $ to try to train this behavior out of her, and it is hard-wired into her DNA.  Rock Run Preserve and Twin Oaks are nice quiet places to take a walk…

BTW, if one of the Hamilton’s lets you into the house, you very quickly become Fern’s best friend.  This includes the pizza delivery people that visit our house much too often.

Her Barf is Worse than Her Bite
One more story, but I have many more!

A couple Augusts ago, our son Richard and I travelled to my sister Marsha’s vacation condo in Ft. Myers Beach, FL to fish for sharks before he started law school.  We chose a bargain airline with small hard seats on bright yellow planes, and it was not worth the savings!  The worst part was that we returned to O’Hare at 7:11 pm  on a Friday.
The maximum bag weight was 5 pounds less than any other airline, and we overpacked one of our bags of fishing gear by 8 oz for an additional $50.  TSA at RSW did not like our bait-casting net with lead anchors, and that led to an interrogation. The seats were small and hard, and the flight was hot, crowded and delayed. 

O’Hare (ORD) is usually packed, but Friday evening is as bad as it gets. 
After a miserable flight, half of which was spent taxiing from an ORD runway that must have been in northern Wisconsin, Rick and I were squeezing our way toward baggage claim when my cellphone rang.  It was Kristen,  “Traffic is at a standstill. I’m going to be very late.  Get paper towels. -click-”  The click came just as Rick stepped onto the down escalator toward baggage claim.  No going back.  In the swarm of people soup that were holding their prized spots next to the empty baggage carrousels I relayed Mom’s message to Rick.  He looked at me quizzically.  I shrugged,  “I have no idea.  Try the restroom.  I’ll wait for the bags.” 
He returned about ten minutes later, “Tried both Men’s rooms.  No paper towels.”
“Try Starbuck’s,” I replied.  He grimaced.  There were more people in line at Starbuck’s than there had been on our steamy flight.  “Mom said she is running late.  We have time.”
He returned as I hefted our second and final bag from the black ribbon of the carrousel. He had a handful of napkins.  “Think this is enough? It’s all they had.”  I shrugged in reply and we exited the stagnant mass of weary travelers to the odor of bus fumes outside.

Thirty-five minutes later my frazzled wife pulled up in her black Buick Encore.  Fern was in the back, but instead of her normal fluffy fawn color I could see that she was a greasy Grinch green. Richard carried our bags to the hatchback while I opened the passenger door to give my wife a kiss.  Her icy stare burned a hole through me, “GO TO THE BACK AND CLEANUP THE VOMIT!”
Rick had already lifted the hatch and I heard him to begin to retch.  I quickly joined him, and the waft of half-digested dog food hit me like a wall.  I realized that the combined odors of fried chicken and mystery flatulence from the sweaty airplane journey was NOT the worst thing I had smelled that day.

The rear seats of the Buick were down, there were mucilaginous dog food pellets from one side of the trunk to the other and on the back of both of the folded seats.  Rick looked at our collection of Starbuck’s napkins. “This won’t be enough,” he lamented.
“I TOLD YOU TO GET PAPER TOWELS!” was screeched from the driver’s seat.
Both of us males started to reply, but quickly realized that there was nothing to say.  We and the dog would soon be murdered and left in a ditch along the southbound Stevenson, we must accept our fate silently.
I took a napkin and began to squeegee the arf-barf from the left side to the right side of the trunk to make room for our baggage.
“Keep moving,” was barked at me from a round CPD officer who approached us from behind.  I looked up toward her.  She studied my face, then considered the inside of the trunk.  She stifled a gag and softened.  “Take your time.”  There was no need to berate the condemned.

I quickly gave-up trying to create a dry space for the bags.  We were going to have to wash them anyway.  I set the luggage gently into the ooze and closed the hatch.  I lifted the back of one of the rear seats thus spilling more puke chunks onto the luggage, and coaxed Fern onto the seat.  With effort she crawled onto the leather, lowered her head into the footwell and a gush of vomit poured from her muzzle.  At least I would be in the front passenger seat!  Richard was not so lucky.  He flipped-up the back of his seat thus flinging more vomit morsels onto our bags, and slid into position.  Fern turned to consider her new seatmate, then dropped her head with a sigh.

After a few choice expletives and honks, Kristen maneuvered the Encore out of Arrivals and onto 190.  As we began to merge onto the eastbound Tri-State, Fern rearranged herself, put her head on Rick’s right thigh, and released the last nuggets of her undigested dinner onto his shoes.  I stifled a snicker thus displeasing my son.  Kristen stared through the windshield with her jaw clenched.  I don’t think I got the full story until the next day.

Kristen was managing our largest project as the leader of our firm’s in-house staff in the Tollway’s Diversity Department.  Friday had been “one of those days” with a myriad of unexpected, and unwelcomed issues – each of which was categorized as an emergency.  She knew that to pick up her vacationing husband and son from O’Hare by 7:30 pm on a Friday that she would need to leave the Tollway headquarters by 4:00, go home, feed the cats and Fern (Olive had passed away a few months earlier), let Fern run around the yard for about ½ hour and pray that there were  no rush-hour traffic accidents between Downers Grove and Joliet, or between Joliet and O’Hare.  At 5:15 she had finally been able to leave the Tollway and southbound 355 was a parking lot.  Southbound 55 to Joliet was worse.  She got home at 6:15.  Fern was starved.  Kristen quickly fed her both her 5:00 and her 6:00 dinners at the same time and decided that since she had been cooped up all day she would enjoy a drive to the airport.  Fern had never had a full-belly car ride, but maybe this dog (unlike every other animal that we ever adopted) wouldn’t get carsick?  She put down the rear seats of her new car so that the dog would have room to move around and Fern hopped in.  As Kristen pulled onto Black Road from Timberline Drive, Fern did move, to the back of the trunk where she vomited.  It happened again as they merged onto I-55.  As she approached Weber Road the traffic stopped due to a stall in the right lane.  Fern had lost about ¼ of her dinner by this time.  A car had a flat tire at Cass Avenue and traffic was moving so slowly past it that Kristen was able to watch the driver jack his car, pull the flat off and start to put on the spare.  Fern was half empty by now.  This was also when Kristen called me.  She was not pleased with the course of events.

The Tri-State was moving at a steady 35mph until the 190/River Rd. exit – where the backup to O’Hare began.  At this point she had stopped watching the clock and had stopped counting the retchings – she just wanted this day to be over!  The weaving traffic at Arrivals did not help.  Neither did a smiling husband who obviously did not appreciate the gravity of the situation as she maneuvered the car toward the curb where Rick and I were waiting.

I usually use All Service Limo to/from the airport. 
We usually don’t feed animals before car rides.
Sometimes we need to be reminded why we have been doing things certain ways.
This day helped us remember.

Remember the good times, purge the bad things – but not the way that Fern does!



Fern & West (Next Month)