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The Education of Argos

How to train a pup (during COVID)

Van Morrison “These are the Days.

Biko surveying his world and getting it ready for Argos
Biko in Kathmandu – always wanting to be part of the conversation – socializing with our neighbors. Biko was born in Kenya and lived with us also in Nepal, Turkey and the U.S. He died October 22, 2020 in Rappahannock Va

My puppy is coming home. I’ve been counting the days since Argos’ birth in mid-October. That’s when serendipity and long hours of searching connected me with week-old new-born Rhodesian Ridgeback puppies 800 miles from where I live. But even before Argos’ eyes were open, his education was a main concern. Without a good school system, disaster loomed.

     I’d been through the early years once before but that was in Kenya and over 11 years ago with Biko our Rhodesian Ridgeback. The bar was high. Biko, who died this October, was remarkably well behaved and socialized. He was, as my husband John reminded me many times, a charming and intuitive dog who had perfected the art of communication.

      RRs – as they are known among afficionados – are a highly intelligent breed recognized for their stubbornness, strength, strong-willed independence, quirkiness, self-centeredness and last but far from least athletic handsomeness. Well trained, they are a dream companion, a funny, deeply loyal, sensitive, adored, gentle family member. Have I mentioned that they are handsome? Untrained, their large size, uncontrolled independence, tireless energy and strength can wreak havoc. Puppies can quickly become an exhausting domineering nuisance. Adolescent RRs are powerful velociraptors. Ingrained in my memory is watching a friend’s young RR flying across her living room from couch to couch, over chairs and children.

       Having trained Biko all those years ago, in Nairobi (Kenya), I knew that aside from puppy-proofing the house, our new RR addition needed consistent training and positive motivation. But I was not prepared for the plethora of training options, the dozens of books, internet pages, and deeply divided opinions on training methods. The philosophies on how to train dogs are mind boggling.

  I am of course armed. Pages of instructions, based on a Pavlovian school of positive enforcement, have been sent to me via email. I have dutifully read them and taken notes. I’ve  followed the detailed directions of Dr. Ian Dunbar’s: “Before and After Getting Your Puppy. The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy & Well-behaved Dog.”  That’s definitely the type of obedient dog I want to create.

      I contemplated my future living with an un-trained young RR, a title that translates into unstable nitroglycerin. It left me anxious and terrified. To train my puppy I had to arm myself with pounds of treats: bulging my safari jacket pockets, in my closets, in my purse, in the car, in each room of the house, in Argos’ bowl, in his crate, and definitely in his Kong. Treats to sit, treats to come, treats to lie, treats to heel, treats to let me lift him up, a treat to get into the car, treats to play games, treats to stop barking. Even treats to bark. There is a whole treat-based technique to make a dog happy when you grab his collar. Then there more treats to deal with the omnivorous eating and chewing, peeing indoors, and the guaranteed pulling on the leash.

   Some of these phases last two years! How will we all survive? I’d forgotten that in addition to everything mentioned above, Argos will have very sharp teeth. What if he developed habits such as eating dirt and rocks and furniture? Could treats cure that?

    I am not saying that the Dunbar technique is wrong. I just can’t bring myself to solely having a food-based relationship with my puppy. There was so much to remember that I needed reems of notes to keep me from forgetting. Aside from feeling as if I was training a laboratory rat, would I have the energy and the patience to do this for longer than a few days?

   I started exploring the internet. I liked Nate Schoemer and watched at least 10 of his videos. But I was overwhelmed when he suggested buying and wearing at all times a special vest with pockets on both sides and on your back for holding treats. They were apparently necessary for confidence building exercises. Puppy training is a complex ballet and focuses on engagement exercises that include primary and conditioning reinforcements, marker sounds, free shaping, luring and leash pressure. And yes, I am not sure what half of those entail.  There is a well-ordered sequence: start by stating your order followed by the hand signal, then the food and finally the clicker. Precision, Nate warned, is critical. So is holding the treat in the nook of your palm and regularly alternating hands.

      On the opposite end of the spectrum are The Monks of New Skete, a Christian monastic community in Cambridge New York that has well known dog trainers and authors. They do not use treats as training methods but rather techniques focused on building human to dog relationships relying on patience, repetition, discipline and praise.  They are also controversial. Critics say they use outdated punishment and some techniques are harsher as in relatively longer crate stays.

            Biko’s breeder, Jeff Greene, the founder and owner of RidgeBack Africa, a dog training business then based in Nairobi, is a dog whisperer. Greene, a former Special Forces soldier, as well as his wife are professional trainers of protection, therapy and companion dogs such as Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. At the time, they bred RRs as a small sidebar to their business. His dogs were not trained via treats. Yet they were well-behaved and attached to their trainers. RRs don’t have the same work drive as those breeds but Biko and I still joined basic training sessions. We never made it to the professional training circuit but we learned enough for Biko to live in harmony with the family while obeying all basic orders. Though he never climbed on couches or beds or ate furniture, he insisted on occasionally sitting on one particular folding metal chair which remained with us across three continents. At dinnertime, he didn’t beg but he would stealthily crawl under the table and slowly and gently remove paper napkins from people’s laps then tear them to shreds before disappearing behind a sofa. In those treacherous adolescent first two years, Biko ate one flip flop, chewed one Birkenstock, counter surfed once on the dining room table by eating ¼ of a round of Gouda. He clipped one of our friends while zooming at top speed on our lawn, pushing her to the ground (luckily unhurt and to this day an ardent Biko fan). His weak point was a love of chasing bicycles. Music calmed him. Biko sat immobile close to my son during years of daily violin practice. In Nepal, he was mesmerized by cymbal chanting Tibetan monks and wandering cows and goats. In Turkey  he patiently let himself be petted and often kissed during his daily walks.  Even 11 years later, he still obeyed all basic commands. And after he returned the US, he barked only when he saw the UPS man.

    Still in this COVID-19 world of isolation and distancing, I don’t think I can replicate on my own either of these essential training techniques. I am not a dog whisperer. I’ve been reading, studying, analyzing and Amazon ordering while pondering puppy destructiveness. According to Dunbar, Argos will need as part of his early critical socializing to meet a minimum of two new adults every day. I must throw a “meet the puppy” party where each adult and each child must pick up Argos and play and hug him. I don’t think Dunbar would approve of a Zoom party as a substitute. I live in Rural Virginia.  My mail box is a 15-minute walk from the house. Most neighbors are even further. All puppy play classes are closed down.

 Biko lived interacting mostly just with us and our visiting humans. In Kenya no one socialized their dogs with the neighbors. In Nepal, we were surrounded by unvaccinated stray dogs but Biko preferred the neighborhood goats and cows that followed him on his walks. Now I have to ponder what had never occurred to me as a first-time dog owner. If I won’t train Argos through buckets of treats and don’t have the know-how and ability to mold a service animal, should I be Buddhist and choose the middle path? 

Biko and my son Lucas – inseparable

Untangling the journey: one box at a time

This July, on my annual summer pilgrimage home, back to Upstate New York, to the house buried in a forest where I spent every weekend and every summer growing up, and which has always been my haven in my 20 or so years overseas, my sister asked me to sort and clean out stacks of my cardboard boxes.

They were piled against a wall in the garage next to our World War II weapons carrier, a still functional grey metal box of a monster, and the vehicle where my father had painstakingly taught me to drive by double clutching. Out of sight, out of mind, I’d avoided this task for years, reluctant to sort through my years from college into journalism then motherhood and all punctuated with permanent wandering. But this time, I knew any lack of action would not sit well with my sister, as the trove of stored family belongings was overflowing.

I am a fan of instant Facebook gratification, not only because of that flattering belief that I have more than a 1,000 friends but also because it is a tool to reconnect with those I have known in all my incarnations whether it be a friend from elementary school, my translator in Mogadishu, My neighbor in Nepal or a collection of friends whose careers and lives I follow. I Instagram because both my 25 and 12-year-old have instructed me that “everyone” does. I am not convinced that being “everyone” is meaningful in any way that might transform my life but like with Facebook, I see the work and communication benefits of instant contact. Still much of my life has been lived before the smart phone.

If I graphed my life as an arc of communication tools, it would begin with the party line we shared with our neighbors in the Catskills. In the lazy no-TV summer days, my sister and I, not yet teenagers, entertained ourselves by listening in to their conversations. I covered crime in New York City, calling my story in to my editor on a pay phone. I filed my first overseas stories about the war in Afghanistan only after I had returned overland to Pakistan and typed them on a telex machine. By 1990, during the first Gulf War, The New York Times provided me with a satellite phone the size of a hip-high refrigerator. In Somalia, I had a four-pound satellite telex that I mounted high above my toilet, tiptoeing on the seat to reach the only window in my room that faced the Indian Ocean satellite. By the time my youngest was born in 2005, the satellite phone fit in my back pocket.

I piled the boxes on the lawn in front of the house, armed with plastic garbage bags and tugged on surgical gloves to battle the mice nests and their detritus. The boxes had not been packed in any particular order. There were stacks of narrow, tan “New York Times” reporter’s notebooks, filled with shorthand notes from my days covering crime in New York City and trekking through the mountains of Afghanistan with the Mujadeddin during the Soviet occupation.  I’d picked up police shorthand: ‘F/B/13 DOA. Brother arrested’ (female, black, 13, dead on arrival). In another notebook, I’d scribbled notes next to quotes from a Mujahed commander meeting: “No idea where we are. On my 7th cup of sugared green tea today. Not a soul speaks English. When am I going to get out of here? ”

The notebooks dredged up long buried images. My sloppy, loopy handwriting that skipped lines and sometimes meandered up and down, triggered smell, taste, touch. It was a cold February day in the Bronx. On the street, men warmed their hands stoking wood fires in old oil drums. For weeks, the leather jacket I had worn that day smelled of rancid alcohol and stale cigarettes. Sobbing, the mother hugged me as we walked through the tiny bare apartment. The daughter’s blood still stained the floor near a piece of her half eaten birthday cake.Tangible hopelessness.

The Afghanistan notes had been written a year before the Bronx when my world did not go beyond the arid Hindu Kush mountains. Afghanistan was my first war, warped by sharply defined feelings of love, hate, boredom, fear and adventure.  I kept taped to my laptop a quote from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” “War is nasty; War is fun. War is thrilling; War is drudgery. War makes you a man; War makes you dead.” Afghanistan — The ever-present dust, that fine layer of earth, a mixture of grit and silk. The person I used to be but am no longer.

But the notebooks were only part of the boxes’ contents. Stuffed in large manila envelopes were hundreds of letters. I remember writing letters home. But I had forgotten about the return flow from my family and friends, a large quilt of my life stitched together by different people at different times.  They came typed, single spaced; hand written, one collection of 15 letters on onion paper with delicate artist script; on aerograms with mysterious GPO return addresses from Singapore, Hong Kong, Addis Ababa, Windhoek; filling all the hardback sides of cards and in postcards. There were letters from lovers. I read through a decade-worth where I seem to have spent way too much time trying to create some fantasy I thought was love. There were deep friendships with journalists that still endure today. I also complained a huge amount. I was lonely, alone, lovesick, frustrated, exhausted and despondent. My father (whose writing to me was often limited to postcards) once suggested I write a book entitled: “Letters From a Despondent Correspondent.”

For someone who sometimes cannot remember details from the day before, this flood caught me off guard. It was as if parts of me had somehow been unearthed in an archeological memory dig and I was encountering a self that I recognized in waves of emotions: joy, curiosity, embarrassment, acknowledgment, discomfort and a great deal of surprise.

I unearthed reams of my mother’s weekly, sometimes daily letters. She and I have always had an electric and combustible relationship. As a child, she was my storyteller who taught my imagination to soar but also my relentless and strict teacher who forcefully tutored me in Latin, Greek, German and Dante. We had a history of bruising arguments well into my 30s.

The scores of letters in the boxes reconnected me to a time and place where we shared ideas and dreams, in a medium that freed us of dictates and combativeness. I needed that nudge to remember. Whether responding to my excited or somber moods, she was a writing machine, supportive, insightful, funny, and deeply understanding. Writing for my mother is a permanent state of mind. Even now at 97, if she could forego oxygen, she would trade it in for pen and paper.

When airmail was too slow or the phone failed, my mother faxed, sometimes daily, as during the Rwandan Genocide when I was stranded in Kigali at the Hotel Milles Collines.  Those faxes, faded, some only barely legible more than two decades later, were also in the boxes.  As was my reply: “Please type! Your handwriting illegible.” But she also spent many pages through the years trying to console me over my hopeless dead-end amorous encounters while emphasizing how they distracted me from reporting and writing.

Every year, as with all her children and grandchildren, her birthday gift was a letter. She typed this letter in 1997 after my return from some war zone, grasping more clearly and more poetically than I ever could, that link between crossing swords and love and respect.  I should have listened to her more often.

“I see Dony who taught me not in words but in actions, at times against my will(…) to break through barriers enjoying the noise of the crash, to live like a pilgrim of the earth which means to be a foreigner in every country because the country you long for is not the one you are in. To be happy in my unhappiness, to be satisfied in my dissatisfaction, cheerful in my solitude. I learned by watching her, by blaming her, by cursing her at times. (…) It is the Dony that gives me the most useless advice and then overwhelms me with the most useful embrace. …Please walk on Donatella, Just as you are. Do not change. Your strength is in being yourself.”

I’d forgotten about the beauty and pleasure of receiving letters, of keeping them in my pocket so I could pull them out to read and re-read, to know that they were my companions no matter where I lived. They were a concrete proof that I existed. As for the contents of all those boxes: they make me who I am.





“Some days I Just have to listen”: A family therapist works with Syrian refugees

As a family therapist, Zeynep Kapisiz works with Syrian refugees in the Turkish city of Izmir. Her patients, mostly children traumatized by war’s violence and suffering ,are more likely to develop psychological disorders, become victims of violence, be forced into child marriages and recruited into armed groups. Here’s my profile of a young woman who faces at times seemingly unsurmountable challenges and tries to find a way to guide and help.

During the cold winter months, debit cards bring warmth to the most vulnerable Syrian children

Ranya, a Syrian refugee who lives in Kilis, a town on the Syrian border, is homeless and her children are forced to beg for a living. But this winter, a UNICEF debit card is making it possible for her to buy clothes and shoes for her children. My piece for #UNICEF

Syrian teenager flees guns and wins chance to study in Turkey

Photo caption: Chemical engineering student Rawan, 19, from Syria, has qualified for one of UNHCR’s DAFI scholarships and will complete her tertiary education in Turkey.  © UNHCR/Ali Unal

My piece for UNHCR

Mother’s dedication inspires 20-year-old to academic success in Turkey


My story for UNHCR

Photo:Fatima (left) and and fellow student Rawan take a moment to relax in the park. Fatima is hoping to study for a masters and a PhD, and plans to returns to Syria when the war is over.  © UNHCR/Ali Unal

Doggone It, Why Do They Make It So Hard To Take A Pooch On A Plane?

From Kenya, to Nepal to Turkey — our dog Biko has experienced the red tape and complexities of international travel. Here’s a dog’s tale. My story for NPR.

This picture of Biko was taken on the southern edge of the Kathmandu Valley during one of our regular weekend hikes. We were stopped on this knoll, watching a traditional Newar funeral procession.