Baby, 80 pounds of yellow-eyed dog with a decidedly wolfish look to him, eyed me with the barely concealed contempt that people whose livelihoods depend on tourists would love to affect but don't dare. At least not in the "hospitality city" of Savannah, Ga., where tourists who love old houses and lurid murder tales are a cash cow that shows no sign of running dry.
But Baby didn't care about that, nor did the fluffy white cat whose name I never learned, both of them lounging in the November sun outside a landmark seafood restaurant hard by the Wilmington River. I crouched low, and the cat finally came forward and allowed me the pleasure of scratching behind her ears. She purred prettily, and I ran my hand along her silken back, scratching at the base of her tail.
Baby yawned and looked away. He would have none of it, and he had no inclination of moving from in front of the restaurant's screened front door. It was 3 in the afternoon, and I was the only one there -- this being the most off of off-seasons -- and he clearly felt it best if I get back in my car and move on.
"Babeeeeee," crooned a male voice from inside. "Babeeeeeee."
That dog's whole face shifted, his jaw opening in gap-mouthed pleasure at the sound of the voice, his eyes alight with pleasure. He stood then and bowed to me -- it might have been a stretch, but I am firm in my belief otherwise -- and walked graciously forward. I smiled back at the big dog and slipped through the door of Desposito's.
The food was wonderful, but that's hardly the point of the story and this isn't a restaurant review. What I was thinking about, inside the simple cinderblock structure, was how much my life is enriched by animals, all animals, and how I learn something new from them every day I live.
On this trip, through Georgia and the Florida panhandle, the lessons were many. I came to appreciate the beauty of wild birds in a way I never have before, on a trip to Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee. I saw more birds than I can remember, each more beautiful than the other. I was struck more than any by one called the anhinga, a long-necked water bird that dries its ebony wings by holding them up and out in the sun.
I also learned about forgiveness, from a little white dog who'd spent the first year of his life as a football and a punching bag before my friend Peg took him from his abuser. On my last visit, Spitzel, who believes firmly in presenting an intimidating front to strangers to prevent further abuse, tried to remodel my ankles with his teeth. This year, he learned to trust me, and became what he is to the rest of the family -- a loving, sweet-natured dog. And yet, every time a hand is raised to pet him, even from the people he loves, he freezes in momentary terror from a memory he can never erase.
Every day is a trial for this little survivor, but he is a dog, and he cannot help but love and forgive.
Cats, dogs, birds and even alligators -- no day of my trip was without animals, and every day was better for it in some way. And yet, the final lesson was perhaps the sweetest of all: How wonderful it is to come home to your own animals.
After more than two weeks apart, the reunion scene when I picked up my dogs was dramatic. The shrieking. The jumping. The paw-pats, kisses and happy panting.
And that was just me. The dogs were even more enthusiastic.
Home may be where the heart is, but in my life, it's where the animals are. But maybe, just maybe they're one and the same, wherever you go.
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PETS ON THE WEB
You don't run across many Web sites that are nonprofit organizations, but that's exactly the case with Golden Retrievers in Cyberspace (www.golden-retriever.com/golden.html), a fabulous site dedicated to saving unwanted goldens and educating prospective owners about this even-tempered and popular breed.
GRiC provides details on rescued goldens available for adoption, and follows up on their progress with their new family. It's also a gold mine of information on finding a golden puppy or dog, and avoiding substandard and often abusive breeders who perpetuate health and temperament problems in the breed.
The pictures are the best. Young and old, the dogs in their new homes shine with joy. A must-see site for anyone who loves this breed.
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To your cat, it's a fresh new scratching post, complete with dangly toys; to your dog, it's a temptation to forget about housetraining. Much as we may love them, Christmas trees are really not that good a match with pets. The ornaments are appealing and possibly deadly if ingested. Electrocution from chewed cords is a risk, too. Even if nothing worse happens than the tree gets pulled over, that's a mess anyone would rather do without.
The best solution? Set up your tree so you are able to keep your pets from it when you're not there to supervise. A baby gate will keep dogs away; a closed door is even better, for both dogs and cats. If nothing else, use a sturdy base, unplug the lights when you leave, and skip the tinsel and angel hair. Cats love these, but any stringy substance can cause trouble if eaten.
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QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I purchased your book "Dogs for Dummies" over the Thanksgiving weekend, and it's really been helpful to my wife and me. We adopted a 5-month-old terrier mix puppy (Gracie) last Tuesday and have been having a lot of fun getting to know her.
I am still confused as to how to handle one aspect of housetraining a puppy.
We've kept to a pretty steady schedule of letting her outside (a) upon getting up in the morning, (b) 15 to 25 minutes after her first meal, (c) midday, (d) after her evening meal, and (e) before going to bed (and, of course, if we ever see her pacing/sniffing near the door, which she has started to do). It's going really well, with only a couple of accidents in the past three days (and I caught her in the act!).
Gracie stays in her crate at night, as well as whenever my wife and I are away. She has been alone in her crate by day for as long as six hours. My wife and I both work, so our plan is for one of us to come home at noon and let her out.
But what I am not clear on is this: How do we make the transition from keeping her in the crate all day when we're away, to giving her the run of a room (or the house) when we're away? At some point, fairly soon I would think, we have to be able to keep her in the house, outside the crate. Is there a tried-and-true method for easing into that? -- P.N., via the Internet
A: Congratulations on your new baby! She sounds wonderful.
The transition is to gradually -- let me stress that word -- give her the run of the house when you're sure she understands what's expected of her in terms of housetraining (even if execution isn't perfect yet owing to small puppy bladders).
I'd start with putting her crate in an area like a laundry room or kitchen, with the crate door open, toys to play with and chew on (like a peanut-butter-filled Kong) and a baby gate across the door to limit wandering.
Don't make a big deal about leaving. Before you go, ask her to sit, make eye contact and give her a command -- I use "guard the house" with my dogs -- to cue her you're leaving. Then do, without fuss. When you return, be cool. A low-key "good dog" is all that you should give and then check the answering machine, read the mail and so on before addressing her again. She needs to learn that comings-and-goings are a normal part of life.
If you make comings-and-goings as dramatic as Ashley's return to Melanie in "Gone With the Wind," you're setting yourself up for trouble. Excitement and anticipation can lead to some destructiveness problems in the period just before she expects you home.
That said, some puppy chewing is of course normal, which is why you need to leave her the toys. (Grown dogs need them, too, to eat up some of their nervous energy.)
She sounds as if she's doing well, and you'll be able to give her the run of the house eventually. But don't rush it, and if you end up with a mess or a chewing problem, back up to step one and start over.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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