What do dogs know that we don’t?

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the behaviour of our dog, Casey, as he explores his world.  For some time now, I’ve noticed that when we let him out, or when he leaves the house via his personal door, he always does the same thing – stops at the top of the steps, nose into the prevailing wind, to see what might be happening before he goes down into the garden.

This observation led me to watch more carefully, and as a result I’ve gained some knowledge about the world as he sees it.  We walk much the same route twice a day, with some slight variations.  We leave by the the back gate, down towards the head of the bridge, and then in a big loop on the top of the coulees before coming back the same way.  It’s the same route to us every day, but it’s clearly not the same route to Casey.

Most often he can hardly contain himself at the back gate, because the two dogs Harley and Hailey are out next door.  On those days, he tears along the fence, barks furiously for a moment, then remembers that he is not supposed to do that and trots back to us.  He doesn’t bark as much since Hailey acquired a barking collar – an anti-barking collar, I suppose.

On other days, his behaviour is quite different.  He may run hard the other way, along the fence, before returning to us.  This week for two or three days in a row he ran straight ahead, up over the berm and down towards the barbed wire fence.  We followed him, fearing he might run out to the tracks, but he stopped before the fence and was sniffing furiously with his best beagle sniff – fff fff fff fff fff.  Did he smell something that had been there, or did he see something earlier and remembered it?

The walk continues, Casey happily trotting along until something catches his attention.  It’s almost always an odor.  His head will go down, and he will change direction to follow the scent.  I’ve learned to interpret what happens next to some degree.  If his nose stays down, he is probably on the trail of another dog.  If the dog passed by recently, he will track carefully and rapidly but look up every few steps, apparently to see if he can see whatever he is following.

Some scents are left by creatures which frighten him, or are unfamiliar.  In such cases, his head is up, as is the fur along the back of his neck, and his tail is straight out behind him at a 45 degree downward angle.  He looks, in a word, tense and a bit concerned.  He won’t follow those scents, at least not too far, but will stand for some time, nose in the air, trying to figure things out.

Birds are of great interest to him.  If he scents a bird of any kind, and it’s upwind, he is gone at full speed.  One day last fall he flushed a covey of partridges; from the point where he scented them to where he rousted them was about 60 metres upwind, which is quite a distance.  He will act the same for other unseen and unsuspecting birds.  Earlier this fall, we walked down along the river, and I noticed he was acting as described above.  It took me a while to realize that he was scenting and hearing a large flock of geese on the ice on the other side of the river.

Casey’s world is a rich world – I’m convinced.  It’s not the drab brown world of a Lethbridge winter that I see.  It’s interlaced with meaning provided by creatures wild and tame who make it their home, or pass through.  It’s a world borne on the wind, all but invisible to me.  It’s not the same walk every day; there is something new and interesting to explore.

I think there may be a lesson here.

The Realm of Possibility

The other day we were discussing retirement with friends.  One of them is already retired, but writing professionally.  The other is working as a self employed marketing consultant.  Good friends.

I remarked that I thought I would do some contract work with the college after I retired formally.  One of my friends said:  “Why limit yourself to the college?”  My immediate response was that I have seldom found the college limiting in the 25 years I’ve worked there.  Upon reflection, that’s still true…but now I am thinking.

She asked, then…”If you could do whatever you wanted to do, what would it be?”  good question – this is what she does for a living.  Well…what I am good at is teaching people to communicate carefully, meaningfully, thoughtfully, and effectively.  It’s been a big part of my professional life, probably more than I recognize.  (One of the unexpected benefits of this last year as interim Chair is that I get a chance to practice what I preach, and I am doing just that.  Or so I feel.)

The ideas which have been bouncing around in my head involve seminars, consultancy, workshops, and similar events.  What if I were to set up my own website. create a business identity (In-site Communications, for example), and hang out my shingle.  Would the business roll in?  Maybe.  Would I make money?  Maybe.  Would I have fun?  Yes, for sure.

I could cherry pick the opportunities in terms of both time, place, and agency.  I could partner with people whom I know are good at what they do – JoAnn, for example; we did this once before.  Or D’Arcy, or George.   Or either of my son’s…it all depends on the agencyMike could make me business cards.

In no particular order, I am skilled at (this is no time to be modest):

  • analyzing relationships (in house)
  • organizing workshops
  • communication
  • designing or adapting learning exercises for specific situations
  • establishing rapport
  • writing
  • motivating
  • follow up
  • creative solutions to tough problems

Likely other areas as well, but this is enough to be going on with.  I could establish a list of shortcomings, but why dwell on such things.  Crocus in Coulee

Let the ideas roll!  Next step?  To figure out how to develop a website.

The last days of work…

An interesting day at the office.  Typical in that I was involved in about 5 meetings, but atypical in the nature and depth of connection with others, and the clarity of my perceptions.  (For the record, this is MY blog, and I am entitled to write honestly and openly about what I am feeling.  I can and will amend it later if I discover something new.)

I’ve now been in the Chair chair (that’s not redundant) for about 8 months.  It has been enjoyable.  I have discovered that relationships I thought didn’t exist are actually pretty strong; that people I felt might not accept me in the role are actually supportive and appreciative; that skills learned long ago and left to lie fallow have come back.  What feels most important are the relationships.

One of the most astounding learnings for me is how one person can affect a whole group so profoundly.  In this case, I’m talking about a person who has retired, a person who was so negative and destructive and frightening that everyone gave her a wide berth.  She affected everyone – everyone!  Her negativism and passive-aggression gave her unwarranted power – or we allowed her that power.  I could go on and on, but that’s not my purpose.  Rather I want to remind myself that a good part of what I am experiencing is due to her absence rather than my presence.

Today one of my colleagues with whom I had a very strong relationship in the past, but not for the past 5 years or so, came to talk to me and shared with me some events that had happened with a student, and with herself, in the Crisis class.  This was a relationship which I thought was lost, but which has, I think, been gradually regenerating.  I will continue to nurture it without being pushy.  That’s what I am doing everywhere, with everyone.

So…I don’t really know where this is going; I just want to write 4 times a week or more.  This post won’t be published in Facebook.


I first picked up the guitar when I was in Grade 12.  It belonged to my brother Paul, actually, but I liked the sound and feel of it, and so I acquired one of my own.  My best friend Pat played piano and organ, and so I aspired to play, though I never expected to be in bands like he was.  At various times I took lessons, some from Duane Stewart in Edmonton (I can still play “Windy and Warm”), and later on some banjo lessons with the Calgary School Board.  Wherever I lived, I would occasionally gather a group together and sing folk songs, and sixties rock and drink beer.  I did not really aspire to more.

It was quite a surprise, therefore, to be asked to join Cabin Fever, a Lethbridge Bluegrass band, at some point in the ’80s.  To be sure, they were desperate as Craig Wood, the lead guitar player, had a nasty encounter with a table saw and only had enough fingers left to play mandolin.  So – there I was, in a band and humbled by it.  Terrified would be a better word, I think.  The band morphed into the Dry Coulee String Band, which played a few Southern Alberta gigs and the Shady Grove Bluegrass Festival in Nanton, then gradually faded away as Craig became very sick.  There is much more to this whole story, and that’s for another time.

I started playing with D’Arcy Kavanagh about 20 years ago.  We both liked Celtic music, and he had a vast repertoire in the genre – still does, in fact.  We added, and subtracted, several band members until Richard Burke joined us with keyboards and bass about 13 years ago.  And we played together for until March 18th, 2011 – more than 11 years, cutting 3 CDs in the process.  Oh, what a time!  And that’s another story as well.

Tonight’s blog, however, is about an absence of music.  Well, not an absence, exactly, because I still play my guitar and mandolin, and D’Arcy and I have had a couple of gigs over the last two years.  It’s an absence of music in terms of the meaning it gave to my life.  I learned and experienced so very much during Glencoulee’s 11 years, and I valued and gained from the fellowship of the three of us beyond measure.  It was probably time for Glencoulee to end – but it has left a void, and I don’t know how to fill it.  I’ve tried playing with several individuals and groups – but nothing has come of it, the problem being me rather than them.  And I can fill it with other stuff, but I still miss the music.

Perhaps I should not try.  Perhaps I should just play, write songs, find my own voice, sing lustily and with passion, and see what happens.  Maybe nothing will happen, but perhaps I will find a new muse.  Or a new direction.  I know I can’t place Glencoulee.  Or it may be that my music life is something to let go of, so that something else can come in – but truthfully, that is not how it feels, and I am trusting my feelings on this on.

The last semester…

The title of this entry sounds rather ominous, but actually it is not so.  Today was the first teaching day of the new semester, which is my final semester at Lethbridge College.  Normally I would have had butterflies as I prepared for first classes, but not today.  I missed them, and in fact some of the energy which normally accompanies first teaching day was absent.  It’s ok, though – just a change.

I feel fortunate to have the opportunity for another 6 months as Chair; it’s a good gig, my 50th semester.  Interestingly, I find I have some skills to apply in the role.  I find, a little surprisingly, that I am respected – I guess I didn’t think about it much.  I find that I can provide some leadership and guidance to students and to my colleagues, both of whom look to me for counsel, advice, and a listening ear at times.  This is compensation, in part,  for the energy of the classroom.

It feels important to me to spend this semester letting go of much that has been important to me, without diminishing the importance of what I am doing.  I want to leave on an even keel, not on a slide into oblivion.  I want to do all that needs to be done.  I want to honour my clients and and colleagues.  I want to set an example in terms of kindness, understanding, and acceptance.  I want to fight battles, even losing ones, where they need to be fought.  I want to help set the direction for the future, even though won’t be part of it, without imposing my will.  And I want to guide others in doing the same.

At the same time, I want to come to the end of my term – June 31st, 2013 – with a transition into a new world, not with a bump.

Let’s see how it goes.


George Kuhl, Ian Randell (the other Ian), and I went snowshoeing at Cameron Lake yesterday.  it was brown and dry on the prairies, but snow was plentiful at Cameron, and got deeper as we headed up the Akamina Pass trail to the junction with the Forum Lake trail, about 1.6 Km.  It wasn’t far, but just far enough for us to test our new equipment; all of us had new snowshoes.

We came back down the trail (1 hour up, 30 minutes back) and went on to Cameron Lake for sandwiches, which we shared with Canada jays and Stellar’s Jays.  We returned to the parking lot via a road less travelled.   A great day!

What made it great?  The company of good friends, of course.  Being outside in the winter.  The exercise.  Knowing I can still do this sort of thing – I can’t be a runner, but there are other things I can do, and will do.  As I move towards retirement, I need to push at my boundaries, not allow them to push in on me.  If I don’t do the former, the latter will happen.

Somewhere along the trail, I told George about Sheldon Gibson’s philosphy, which was:  “Never let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do.”  I think about this a lot.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Rachel Joyce wrote this book.  Judging from the inside cover, it’s her first.  I’m finding it compelling in a strange way.  Metaphor in literature sometimes escapes me.  The Life of Pi, for example, just seemed strange and meaningless; after I read it, I thought “so what?”.  Not so this book.

It’s the story of a man who, having recently retired, has an urge to walk from his home on the south coast of England to Berwick-on-Tweed, a distance of about 500 miles.  The impetus for this journey is a letter from a woman he once worked with 20 years earlier, in which she thanks him for past kindnesses and tells him she is dying.  He writes an inadequate letter, then goes to the nearest mailbox – then the next one, then the next, and thus begins his journey.  Along the way, he discovers his life – his sorrows, of which there are many, his regrets, his values…  I don’t know how it will end, but I shall continue to read it with interest.  I know it has something to do with me.