You and your canines can beat the winter blues
I usually reserve spelling out that word when making a comic book reference or discussing Don Martin’s MAD Magazine cartoons.
In this case, I’m referring to the sound of the remarkably powerful tail of our recently rescued Australian Shepherd. That rhythmic thwack is her wake-up call. It keeps time on the pillow over my face better than any metronome. Sometimes, she’ll thwack me good on my forehead, which is quite the unwelcoming alarm. Other times, she’ll thwack it so hard against the bedroom door that our hallway sounds like we live in an echoing castle.
After plunking a generous handful of ice cubes into my iced coffee, I send her out back to do her morning biz. We are blessed with a fenced-in yard, so I suppose those early morning thwacks aren’t that bad.
Named by our daughter after the Jedi apprentice of Anakin Skywalker (that’s his name before his Darth Vader days), Ahsoka’s wild red merle pattern blends in perfectly with the chaos of our family. She also has a bit of mystery to her. Abandoned by her previous family at only four months old, Ahsoka was rescued by New Jersey’s Friends for Life Animal Rescue, which drove her up from Texas to a deserted office park in Morristown. On that rainy Saturday morning, a van pulled up carrying about a dozen rescues. The driver gently handed me our nervous and shivering new family member.
Needless to say, very little has been the same since. And I mean that in the best possible way.
I don’t want to make it sound as if our lives have been Shangri-La during the last four months. We’ve worked hard to get her housebroken. We’ve successfully tamed her counter-surfing tendencies, but there’s more training to be done. Our kids are old enough to take some responsibility. It’s been stunning to watch how quickly they’ve found a bond with Ahsoka without ignoring Akashi, our five-year old rescue from Puerto Rico who’s been part of the fabric of our family since 2019.
Now that the humdrum of winter is upon us, it’s time to double-dog-down on our commitment to the health of our rescues. The chilly temps and inclement weather are not acceptable excuses for keeping our pooches inside. Australian Shepherds, like other herding breeds, are known to be super intelligent, high-energy dogs who need a generous amount of exercise to keep them challenged. Doggie puzzles are nice, but the great outdoors is nicer. “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” asked the rescue agency during our adoption interview. We did. And we were as ready as we could be.
I can share with you that the dogs and I have started out 2024 on a high note. This will be my second year taking part in the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital January Dog Walk Challenge. I’ve committed to walking the dogs 40 miles this month while fundraising for a very good cause. When I signed up last year, I was shocked at how generous folks were with their donations. I expect the same response this year from my fellow humans.
This is the sensible point to naturally transition into details about walking our energetic pooches. Problem is, said energetic pooches are currently staring at the back of my head as I write this. It’s a not-so-subtle demand that I take them for a walk immediately. So pardon this brief pause, although there is something truly meta-caninical about this moment that I thought appropriate to share.
Now that Akashi and Ahsoka are chomping treats under my desk (loudly, might I add), I am thinking about how challenging it might be to walk a little over a mile per day with these dogs. Akashi takes great pride in marking every vertical object that he passes. Ahsoka enjoys laying down on the job, getting coaxed by a treat, and zigzagging up the trees in case a squirrel is nearby. Honestly, it can be surprisingly arduous at times. They can be real slowpokes.
In addition to setting a manageable goal and making sure I get outside in the January muck, it’s a benefit to the dogs to give them a steady ritual during times when physical activity can be easily derailed. Although there’s no scientific proof that dogs are susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder, there is evidence that canines have shifting levels of melatonin during the winter.
I’ll leave the canine pineal gland scientific debate to the professionals. My priority is to keep the family healthy during the winter months. Our kids may not like the concept of “less screens, more inclement weather,” but we’re going to sell it to them as their responsibility to the dogs. Because let’s be honest: We know our pups are the ones that really run the household. And hopefully, that powerful thwack of Ahsoka’s tail may be more gentle tomorrow morning because the pups are exhausted and need some extra winks.
Donny Levit is a writer, Maplewood resident, and dog enthusiast. At times, he lost focus writing this essay because he was staring at his dogs.