leash talk!

My recent opinion piece on retractable leashes provoked more thinking on leashes and dogs.

Why do you use a leash?  I know most people will say one of a few things.

“I use it to walk my dog.”

“It keeps my dog from running away.”

“It’s a law.”

Add your own reasons . . .

But I’ll bet very few dog owners will say that the leash is a way to communicate with their dog.

I had horses for over 35 years. For a long time, I thought of the rein as a method of control.  It wasn’t until I opened up to my mare Lark and listened to her and accepted her as a schoolmaster, not only in riding, but in life lessons as well.  It was then I learned the rein was alive with the chatter of my horse. I just had to soften my hand and body, so I could feel and receive what my horse was communicating to me.  What a miraculous revelation! I celebrated when I came to this realization.

When I got my Labrador Retriever as a puppy, I thought of the leash as a way to keep her safe –from running away.  As soon as I arrived home from the breeder’s, I took 8 week old Hannah out into the yard on a leash hoping she would toilet.  Within a few minutes my friend Wendi arrived to meet Hannah. The first thing she did was to unclip the leash! I panicked, but Wendi said, “Deb, she’s not going to run away. She’s a little puppy and will follow you most everywhere. Take advantage of it now and teach her how to handle freedom. It’s dogs that learn this early who are much less inclined to take off and run.”

What a great lesson to learn; of course, Wendi was right with 40 years of dog training under her belt. I employed it with my second puppy to the same end resolution. It is because of this I can walk my dogs off leash and be confident that they will range appropriately and come to me when I call them.  This gives them the chance to BE dogs and enjoy the freedom to run and explore and sniff, all under my strict supervision in isolated areas away from dog traffic.

But the leash still has a place in the lives of my dogs. I went to obedience classes and worked hard on leash manners.

And one day I had an AHA moment! “Oh my gosh!” I said to myself aloud. “The leash is just like the rein on a horse!” At that point I stopped thinking of the leash only as restraint or control. It became a way to communicate with my dogs.  I can “feel” my dog through the leash because I also use a buckle collar instead of a harness. I believe that the collar, being so close to the head, delivers more communication than a harness.  I can “feel” when my dog is relaxed and happy.  I can “feel” when my dog’s intensity increases.  I can “feel” excitement.  I can “feel” when my dog is totally in hand and paying attention to me.  I can deliver a light closing and release of my hand to get my dog’s attention. My contact, like that on a rein, is light and vibrating; it offers no invitation for pulling.  (It takes two to pull!)

Communication is awareness, and we need to listen to what our dogs are saying to us; their feedback is invaluable. When on leash, the handler with a soft and listening hand develops sensitivity and is able to listen to their dog. Two way communication only makes our relationship with our dogs more enjoyable and results in a happy, confident, and trusting bond.


a new leash on life

Author’s Note: This piece represents my opinion, and mine alone, based on multiple experiences, observations, and regulations issued by therapy dog organizations. Do I have a retractable leash? Yes, I do. I used it a few times and finally put it away when I realized how little control I had over my dog and the outward danger it represented to people around me while I was using it.

I hate retractable leashes!

I was in the vet’s waiting room the other day when a dog appeared out of the examination room without its owner who was still in the room talking to the vet, totally oblivious that the dog had wandered 15 feet away from her on its retractable leash and out of her sight. The dog made a beeline for my dog, and I quickly moved away. Time and time again I have encountered this scenario with oblivious owners who have their dogs on retractable leashes.

Typically, I observe a very casual attitude from many of these owners.

“Oh, don’t worry, my dog is friendly.” Yeah? Do you know if MY dog is friendly??

I see the fumbling with the handle and all the buttons that are supposed to control the dog. The handle is an intermediary between dog and handler – just one problem! There’s no way you can “feel” the dog or quickly address control if needed.

I often associate use of the retractable leash with a lazy trainer, one who hasn’t taken the time to teach their dog to walk mannerly on a proper 6-foot leash.

I have seen the damage that retractable leashes do to handlers who give too much leash and get entangled, sometimes suffering deep lacerations. Other dogs and owners are often at risk when approaching a poorly trained dog on the end of a retractable leash.

A few months ago, I was walking towards my car after a walk with my dog on a regular 6-foot leash when I saw a dog jump out of the car next to mine. It was on a retractable leash. The owner had allowed it full range, and the dog had gone behind the vehicle to approach me and my dog. It was out of sight of the owner who was preoccupied with getting something out of her car. I stopped well out of range and waited.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry,” she said, “My dog is friendly.” I smiled at her and quietly said, “How do you know if MY dog is friendly?” She quickly fumbled with the handle and managed to shorten the leash, so her dog was in hand. I still waited until she left her car and set off on her walk, the dog again given full range 15 feet away from her.

I am involved in therapy dog work, and there are strict leash rules. Retractable leashes are NOT permitted when the dogs are doing therapy work. Governing therapy dog organizations that test, certify, and register therapy dogs ALL require the therapy dog to be on a 4 to 6-foot leash while working. Handlers are reminded that their hand must ALWAYS be on the leash and that 50% of their brain/attention should be focused on the dog at other end of the leash. If this regulation is not obeyed and something happens, it negates the insurance policy the handler carries as a member of the organization.

I have observed therapy dog handlers who drop the leash, unclip the leash, walk away from their dog, or remove their attention from the dog while working. I’ve seen handlers read a book, knit, or socialize with people instead of taking the responsibility of monitoring what happens between their therapy dog and the person they are interacting with.

Again, the trusting attitude arises. “My dog won’t hurt you.”
For those of us who have been around animals for numerous years know that this declaration should NEVER be made.

It’s important to remember that there are many fantastic dogs out there who have been well trained and are owned by responsible people. BUT THEY ARE STILL DOGS. THEY ARE ANIMALS. Animals can be unpredictable, even the most wonderfully calm and accepting dog. They will react with species characteristics; in the case of dogs, observable warnings are usually delivered and if startled or provoked further, a nip/bite. The alert handler will be able to avert this if (s)he has his/her hands on the leash and is paying attention.

Aging dogs with arthritis or failing vision can be more insecure in their surroundings than their younger counterparts. I once observed an aged, beautiful, and very gentle therapy dog suffering from arthritis, lying quietly BEHIND its handler who was not paying one bit of attention to the dog. A child went up to the dog and clumsily laid down beside it. The dog immediately reacted with a yelp and banged the child in the face, scaring her badly. Pain is a strong motivator for atypical behavior, and the dog had to be reported to the organization. The organization had no recourse but to terminate the dog’s visits. If the handler had been employing proper leash technique, reassuring the dog through contact, and focusing her attention on her dog, this situation could well have been averted.

So it’s time to get a different LEASH ON LIFE when working with your dog or enjoying outdoor time in the presence of other dogs and their owners. This leash on life should encourage dog owners to assume the responsibility to train their dogs to appropriate behavior when on a regular leash of proper length.


peeing in the woods

I learned how to pee in the woods at a very young age. My Dad taught me.

My father was a professor at Shippensburg State College, now Shippensburg University, in south central Pennsylvania. He was also a contemplative fly fisherman and spent numerous hours on the beautiful limestone streams in the area.

I was six years old when my Dad first put a fly rod into my hands. In the beginning I fished with worms. I wasn’t afraid of worms, but my chubby little hands resisted pushing the hook through their squirming body. Of course, when I went fishing with Dad, he got very little fishing done. Most of his fishing consisted of removing the hook from everything I caught! – trees, clothing, branches, grass, barbed-wired fences, my hair, and an occasional fish.

Eventually my attention would turn to other things. It was fun exploring along the shoreline, checking out the cows in the field, and poking sticks into the oozy cow piles.

And, being only 6 years old, my bladder was kind of small.

“Dad, I have to pee!”

My Dad went with the “flow” and told me it was OK to pee in the woods. He was a man of great decorum, so he never looked. After all, he was a respected college professor.

Naturally, this habit has stayed with me all my life. Being his daughter, I was raised to love the outdoors, and I’ve spent much of my life either riding my horse on the trails, photographing landscapes, or walking in the woods with my dogs. And like a six-year-old, my “mature” bladder reminds me frequently that it needs to be emptied.

And I still pee in the woods. Nothing to it!

The birds and bees think it is a cinematic event to behold the fanny of a 69-year-old woman. The squirrels sit in the trees and chuckle and chatter hysterically.

But there’s a method to the process which I’ve refined over these many years.
First, a suitable location must be found. Little alcoves among dense underbrush are perfect. Then, one must spot all directions to be certain no humans are approaching. Once total privacy has been assured, then it’s time to drop the pants and squat. (Men have it so much easier!) The squat position takes well developed thigh muscles, and the pants must be pulled forward to stay dry.

Then pee. . . ahhhhhhhh

It helps to have Kleenex in your pocket and a doggy bag for the disposal of the Kleenex. Nothing like peeing in the woods when you’re a mile from your car!

The dogs? They’re used to it. They’ve seen the show too often to find it entertaining.
PS: Be sure you’re not squatting in poison ivy!                                                                                *photograph was taken at Tyler State Park


along the railroad


I grew up in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania and always lived near the railroad.

The Cumberland Valley Railroad ran right through the center of town, and had been built to connect the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers. It had a definite impact on local manufacturing, and businesses began to sprout up in Shippensburg. The railroad also connected the community with Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York City.

We all remember having to sit in our cars or stand by the curb waiting until the train passed. As the years passed, townsfolk started complaining how ridiculous it was to have a train running right through the middle of town!

And then my Dad told me about placing a penny on the tracks before a train came along. I remember the first time he showed me and gave me the resulting flat penny. I was in awe of the whole thing.

My friends and I always had a fascination with the railroad tracks and trains. These were the days before television. Most of us were avid readers which fueled our imaginations and resulted in very creative play. We’d often wander through the local baseball field to the rear of the L’aiglon Factory where the trains passed within 50 feet of the buildings.

One day, I spied a huge fire along the tracks behind the factory. Thinking the fire needed to be put out, I quickly rounded up my friends Joanna and Phillip, and we ran over to tackle the flames. Most likely it was a bonfire to burn trash from the factory, but we didn’t realize that. It was a huge fire, and thick clouds of black smoke were rising into the air. The heat was tremendous, and the smoke was suffocating, but we kids put out that fire! We were so brave and so proud of ourselves. I remember coming home covered in dirt and soot; I was filthy. Of course my parents wanted to know why, but they didn’t scold me. I have an inkling they were snickering behind my back.

Another afternoon around dinner time, there was a knock at our back door. My mother answered it, and there stood a “hobo” who politely asked if my mother could spare some food. She asked him to wait outside, came in, and made him a sandwich. She gave him something to drink and several pieces of fruit. He thanked her profusely and headed back towards the tracks to catch the next train passing through. Hobos were common in those days, and they would hitch rides to their destination.

My friend, Nancy, lived right across a field from the railroad. We decided to explore one day and discovered a magical woods running parallel to the tracks. We built hideaways using branches and twigs. We cut trails through the woods, and we dreamed up fantasies and took on the leading roles in those fantasies. One day while we were playing there, we spied a hobo walking towards us on the tracks. It frightened us, but we decided to hide and spy on him. He came closer and closer, and our hearts were pounding. We didn’t know whether to run or stay hidden. We stood our ground and hunkered down behind the brush. Suddenly I stood up and yelled, “Dad! What are you doing here!?” He laughed and laughed and told me that he just wanted to see where we were playing. I’d told him so much about this magical place, and I know he was concerned for our safety.

And then there was the time Nancy and I were running along the tracks towards our hidden kingdom when I stepped on a rusty nail protruding from a piece of 2 x 4. Fortunately, because we were running so fast, I ran right out of the nail. I was wearing sneakers, and the nail had gone right through the rubber sole into my foot. Naturally it bled pretty profusely, and Nancy had to help me get back to her house where her mother immediately called my parents who came for me and took me right to the doctor.

My friend Sharon was the daughter of one of the local physicians. Her parents were strict, and I was always getting her into trouble. We used to play in a small overgrown area near the tracks where we allowed our imagination to run wild. When Sharon told me she had to go home to pee, I told her it was OK to go in the weeds and pee, promising her I wouldn’t look. She did that, and several days later came down with a bad case of poison ivy all over her privates. To this day she has an eagle eye for spotting poison ivy.

Life along the railroad tracks was exciting and often magical when left to the wild imagination of avid young readers.

a dog on the bed


Hannah and Heidi are blowing their coats.

In Labrador Retriever or dog lingo, it simply means that they are mega-shedding.  It happens twice yearly – winter and summer – not fall and spring as one would ordinarily assume.

Labs shed year around, so the vacuum cleaner makes its rounds every few days. And because of this, I do not allow my dogs on any furniture.

Hannah and Heidi, known as “the girls,” have their own dog beds in the family room as well as in my bedroom.  They spend the nights in my bedroom, and knowing they are there is such a comfort.

A few weeks ago in the middle of the night, around 2 a.m., I suddenly became aware of a dog on my bed. I could tell by the heft and movement that it was Heidi.  It was a shock because neither of the girls have ever been permitted to be on my bed, nor have they ever even considered doing it.

I was barely semi-conscious, so I didn’t even bother to turn on the light. I humped my body and moved my legs, and she jumped off the bed.

Only a few minutes had passed, when I felt her jump back on my bed. This time she laid down over my body.  I was sleeping on my stomach, and her weight was very uncomfortable. Again, I contorted my body to get her to move, and she jumped off.

I began to wonder why this was happening because it was completely out of the norm.  But because I was so sleepy, I just pulled up the covers and drowsed off again.

But then, oddly enough, Heidi jumped up on the bed a third time and draped her body over my legs and lower back.  Three times in one night?! I knew the comforter would be loaded with black hair. Again,  I kicked my legs until she finally jumped off the bed.

And that was it. The rest of the night was quiet and uneventful until the early morning sun started to leak in around the window shade.

It was time to rise and start my day.

Remembering Heidi’s sojourns onto my bed during the night, the first thing I did was to pull the comforter up to the pillows to see how much hair and dirt had been deposited.

I smoothed the comforter and stared.

There was not one single black hair to be seen . . .


exercising the friendship muscle


Yesterday I read a wonderful blog entry by a gal, Janet, I know through the Creative Group at Bedlam Farm. She is recently retired and is still feeling her way in using her new-found free time.  She speaks of developing friendships as out of her comfort zone but recognizes that it is important to start “exercising the friendship muscle.” Oh, I love how she phrased that.  It made me think about myself.

I learned at a very young age how to reach out to people.  Because I had a hearing disability, my peers were not inclined to reach out to me. I was different, and many of them thought I was stupid. So it was up to me to foster friendships. I experienced a lot of rejection, but I just kept plugging away. And I was blessed with a few really good friends growing up. And some are still my friends, even though great distance separates a few of us.

I am very fortunate as an adult to enjoy many wonderful friendships. Having no family left and being an only child, these friends have become my chosen family.  Not too long ago, I took my friend Nan along when I visited Hannah’s oncology vet.  After I introduced Nan to Dr. J, she turned to me and said, “You have lots of friends!”  I replied, “Yes, I am so lucky.” This remark was prompted after she’d also met Wendi and Fran who had both accompanied me on other high stress visits.

But sometimes I get very tired exercising my friendship muscle.  It’s frustrating when it continually falls on me to initiate contact and arrange time to get together.  We all know that true friendships require a balance – a “two way street” as the cliché goes.  I’ve gotten very good at navigating one way streets, but sometimes my tires and motor just fizzle out.

  • There’s the friend who comments, “Good idea,” when I suggest getting together. And then nothing happens.
  • There’s the friend who says she doesn’t want to bother me. Boy, would I love to be bothered!!
  • There’s the friend who will never give me any dates when I invite her and her husband to my home. So we wind up almost never seeing each other. We genuinely cherish our friendship too.
  • There’s the friend who says she’ll be in touch, and then a year or more will pass.

These are all people I truly love, but sometimes my friendship muscle just gets overworked to the point of fatigue.

True, we live in a crazy and fast paced world. But life isn’t worth living without friends.  I’m so grateful for my friends who take a few seconds/minutes to email or send a text  – just to say hello and check in or to suggest a spontaneous outing.  I’m so grateful to the friends who call me family. I’m so grateful to the friends who support me through my crises; they call, text, stop by, and accompany me to appointments. I’m so grateful for the friends who take phone messages or make phone calls for me.  They’re there, and I am so fortunate.

~The image is a photograph of Coral Bells with post processing in an app called Waterlogue.


There’s been interesting discussion in the Creative Group at Bedlam Farm about photography. This, and my preparations for a photography excursion to Iceland, has triggered a multitude of thoughts about the progression, over the years, of my own photography.  When I view posted snapshots and judge photography contests, I realize that there’s a fine line where photography becomes an art.  I watch as people who love photography travel the same paths I did in my early days.

I fell in love with the camera and taking photos when I was in junior high school. My Brownie camera was pretty straightforward and did not lend itself to any sort of creative efforts other than what my eye saw in the viewfinder.  And like most beginners, I shot everything dead center.

After I graduated from college, a friend introduced me to the SLR cameras, and I bought my first 35mm SLR when I was 24 years old. I still have it – a Minolta SRT-101. The focus was manual, and the exposure was manual. The lens was a 55mm f/1.7 prime lens. Given that there was no such thing as AUTO on that camera, I was forced to learn the basics. In hindsight, that’s where I got a solid foundation in the basics.

Then the digital age arrived. I knew  I did not want a point and shoot camera, so I saved up until I could afford a digital SLR. In 2005, I got on the phone with a representative from B&H in NYC who recommended that I go with Canon since, at that point, Canon was ahead of Nikon in digital photography. Several friends who were serious photographers also pushed me towards Canon. And that’s when the next phase in my journey as a photographer began.  (NOTE: I use the term photographer loosely as I feel a real photographer is able to present images as art. At this point in my journey, I wasn’t really a photographer. I just loved taking pictures!)

So the camera arrived, a Canon XTi, and it sat in the box awhile. It was scary!! But it had a zoom lens!! Up until then all my photography had been with prime lenses.

Finally the camera came out of the box and was immediately set on Auto. I just didn’t know what to do with all the bells and whistles! And it had been so long since I’d done some serious photography that I needed a refresher in the basics! I became more and more frustrated with the lack of creative control I had when shooting on AUTO. So I signed up for a Canon digital 101 workshop at the local camera store. The instructor was terrific, and as he talked and demonstrated I was having one AHA moment after another!

So I turned the dial to Aperture Control. Hey, it was a digital camera; I could get instant feedback without paying $$ for film and developing.  So I learned by trial and error. I loved the freedom of adjusting the ISO and f stops to control my shutter speed. And then eventually I got to exposure control.  And then I began having fun! I wanted to get out and shoot all the time.  And I got fixated on photographing different things.

I chased sunrises and sunsets.

I shot flowers and pets.


I photographed horses, being certain to take the coveted “eye” shots.

I took insects, especially butterflies on flowers!

I shot birds and wildlife.

I chased silhouettes and had a blast creating them through exposure control.

I took landscapes.

I toyed with portraits.

I struggled at times with focus and clarity! Enter DOF (depth of field), shutter speed, and good glass.

And eventually I realized  I was just taking snapshots. I got bored. The pictures were common, cliché if you will.  I was shooting what everyone shoots. My photos were not unique. Even though I was operating the functions of my camera, I was taking very little creative control of my images. I still thought of photography as TAKING a picture.

I bought PhotoShop. I learned about Picasa and PicMonkey. I explored the variations of filters.

At the urging of friend and photographer Hillary Shemin, I joined SmugMug and set up a photo website where I could store my photos. I actually sold a few! I became a member of the Smug Daily Community and began to see the work of talented photographers and got some valuable feedback and guidance.  It inspired me to improve and advance with my photography. I began investing in good glass.

But I still thought of photography as TAKING a picture. . . and I was still shooting in jpg.

My post processing was just playing. Usually my better efforts in producing a decent image were often an accident!

I started experimenting in PhotoShop with layers – that was a phase, and it was another step in learning  to manipulate images.

CROW PS montage

I purchased the Nik Collection and fell in love with Color and Silver Efex Pro.

And then I decided it was time to take some workshops, to work with some mentors. Good mentors do not tell you what to do; they merely open doors and challenge you to walk through them. I love being challenged. I love thinking about what I’m doing with my camera and editing and WHY.

Jeff Anderson finally made the Law (or Rule) of Thirds clear. He reminded me to “move my feet” to discover the best angles. And when I did an equine photography workshop with him he forbade me to take the “equine eye” shot – it was so overdone and so cliché. AHA! He forced me to look for new ways to photograph horses.

0053 Silver Efex Pro

My work with Jeff gave me the courage to work with other mentors. And I’ve been so fortunate to work with amazing photographers and persons.

Craig Varjabedian, a gifted and published landscape photographer based in Santa Fe, NM, was my next mentor.  Craig and I had amazing conversations about conscientious practice and concepts of photography as art.  Craig had worked with Ansel Adams, and it was Craig who finally made me understand that we MAKE a photograph. When we sat down together to work on an image, he asked me, “What do you want to do with this?” Duh? I had never approached my images that way – I just played and hoped I’d get lucky!

tree efex version copy

Kim Scianghetti, daughter of photographer Barbel Scianghetti, was a photographer I admired in the Smug group. She is a very talented, award-winning portrait photographer, and I was mesmerized by her images. I knew I wanted to work with her if she was willing, and she was. Kim is a brilliant creative, a wonderful soul – and an amazing hands-on teacher.  She opened the door to Lightroom and encouraged me to become more diligent about shooting RAW.


And along the way, my images changed.

Am I a photographer? Well, I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

. . . and the evolution continues . . .