Trouble January 15, 2005-January 29, 2019

Trouble died yesterday very peacefully, after declining over the past few weeks. She was fourteen.

Trouble .jpgWhen she came to me, she was already a treasure: a Canadian Champion with an obedience title and a working certificate. She was also the no-nonsense mother of excellent puppies. In her seven years with me, she became a much-loved St. John Ambulance Therapy dog with seniors and sick kids, and of course, a teaching aid/e in my work as a teacher of writing.

Mostly she was a good friend. I’ll miss her.


February 8th


When someone Trouble loves reappears after a significant absence, there is an immediate love-in, usually just inside the front door. Trouble’s greeting is rapturous, beginning with a tail wagging that involves the full body, followed by a slow sideways slide to the floor, and a paw-waving rollover that clearly indicates that the favoured visitor is permitted to provide a belly rub.


The rapture is contagious, as, for instance, when Daughter comes home after farflung travels. Not everyone is so privileged or so loved.

One Friend, however, receives the same welcome — Daughter’s Friend, who from time to time looks after Trouble when her People go away. Daughter’s Friend is beloved of the whole household, in fact, to the extent that we have coined a new category of relationship in her honour. You’ve heard of daughters-in-law: Daughter’s Friend is also our Daughter-in-Paw.

And, since February 8th is her birthday, we offer her our congratulations and our best wishes for much happiness and our love. One of us is also offering a belly rub, but that has to be claimed in person.

Trouble in print

Though she is not permitted to attend her own party, Trouble’s contributions to a new book will be celebrated next week when Professorial Paws: Dogs in Scholars’ Lives and Work will have its Halifax launch.

The book’s title is an accurate description, but can’t indicate the range of the pieces included — from graphic narrative through memoir to poetry. Among them are several of the posts from this blog, including photos (alas, not in glorious colour).

Paws poster

Edited by Ardra Cole and Sharon Sbrocchi, the book is published in Halifax by Backalong Books, and all proceeds from the sale of the book and of its predecessor in Ardra Cole’s Animal-Human Bond Series will go to ElderDog Canada. ElderDog is a non-profit organization that supports older dogs and older dog-people and educated the community about the importance of the animal-human bond, especially in later life.

All welcome!

Where do ideas come from?

nose downTrouble, her nose on a scent, is literally down-to-earth when it comes to new ideas. She skims the ground or pushes her nose right into things, seeking and discovering – a peanut hidden by a jay in a drift of yellow leaves, a bit of dead crab inside a fractured shell, a biscuit in a closed hand. What she makes of these discoveries I cannot tell, though I’m pretty sure that she connects them. Like a researcher examining her findings, she formulates a hypothesis and tests it on every excursion, until her conclusions are clear. The neighbourhood is a good place to turn over leaves: if the jays haven’t left peanuts, the cats have often left something else. Beaches are dead-crab buffets. And the nursing home is a good place to snuffle fists.(Old hands hungry for touch often conceal a treat, and the soft thrusting of a nose provides it. Win-win.)

snuffling cropSo often has the hypothesis been tested and proven that Trouble’s discoveries are fast becoming canine laws, and she is disappointed if her neighbourhood experiments yield nothing but an empty coffee cup under the leaves. Generally they confirm an even larger theory – that the world is full of good things.

Human’s ideas come from her own version of sniffing around, and then the application of questions that were instinctive in childhood but became systematic later.

When and where?
And always, insistently, like any two-year-old, why?

The questions launch speculation. What place has this phenomenon in a larger pattern? That’s the intellectual work of the academy, in its simplest terms. What every undergraduate essay is doing. Asking – and answering – so what?

Once in a while, however, an observation, a fact, a detail resists a pattern.

shoe cropThe same questions come into play: Who lost this shoe? And who placed it here to be found? Whatever was the wearer doing to lose one shoe, and not search until it was found again?

An empty shoe on a bleached stump on a sunny autumn day. Innocent, surely. Or is there another shoe somewhere in the undergrowth? And something more sinister?

Speculation begins: is this a murder mystery unsolved? A love story gone wrong? A scavenger hunt abandoned?
Where do ideas come from?

From something familiar uncovered or something odd in plain sight.

So what?

The same question yields both science and story.


inukshuk trouble squinting crop
Trouble knows what an inukshuk is. It’s a pile of rocks for other dogs to mark in their predictable fashion, and for Trouble to sniff.

Human knows a little more about them. Inuksuit  are rock monuments of varying complexity built by generations of Inuit in the Arctic. They may indicate a direction or a cache or a burial place, but in the lonely expanses of the Arctic, whether in snow or in the brief summer, they all say “Someone was here.”

You are not alone.

It was odd, then, one Monday morning in spring, to find Point Pleasant Park marked with a series of inuksuit, of varying sizes, along the shoreline ledge of rock and shale and shells. No individual effort could have constructed them all between this visit and our last. Had someone instituted an inukshuk installation? Thrown a beach party with a difference? Tried to rival Clam Harbour’s Annual Sandcastle and Sandsculpture Contest?

Perhaps it was just an attempt to make us smile.

These inuksuit were not saying “You are not alone.” First of all, we are never alone in the Park, for it is one of the most popular places in the city. They weren’t saying, “You aren’t lost,” because the shoreline path is impossible to lose. They weren’t saying, “This way to the container port,” for they were too small for any ship’s captain to see.

Perhaps, in juxtaposition with the cranes of the port, they were intended to highlight the contrast of industrial and natural. Or evoke, as I couldn’t help thinking, a flock of ungainly geese with trailing goslings yet to acquire their adult colouring.inukshuk and cranes crop

In other words, the message, if there was one, was lost on me. (Trouble found much to absorb her, but it was from the aforementioned other dogs, not the stones themselves.) Out of its ordinary context, the text which is an inukshuk just didn’t work. Multiple versions didn’t make the message any clearer, just as repeating your words, ever more loudly, to someone who doesn’t understand your language, doesn’t work.

In James Kinneavy’s*  terms, then, this is a piece of discourse that, if intended to be informative or persuasive, failed. That leaves two other possibilities: it could be expressive discourse.  “I was here,” it says, like any graffito on a fence or name on a bathroom stall. Or it could be artistic discourse, in which the text, the work, is the most important thing, crafted to stand on its own, to be interpreted and appreciated for what it is.

Anyway, it made me smile. And Trouble?  Look closely. Trouble decided to roll in something smelly.

inukshuk trouble rolling crop*James Kinneavy. “The Basic Aims of Discourse.” College Composition and Communication 20.4 (1969): 297-304.

Counterintuitive: PS to “Cone of Shame”

Trouble doesn’t overthink things, which is one of the reasons she’s such good company. So she is not puzzling over the whys and the hows, as Human is — she is just delighted to be free of the cone of shame and to have the regimen of medications reduced to just lubricating drops until her next check with the surgeon.


Photo Credit: Eileen Donahoe

The keratectomy has done its magic: within six days of the procedure the ulcer had shrunk to a pinpoint; on day twelve, it was pronounced fully healed. No stain uptake in any tissue. The vet, the assistant, the office manager, other clients in the waiting room — everyone had a huge smile, and there was a little wine with dinner that night.

Human continues to puzzle over how removing a microscopic layer of tissue can promote healing — it’s counterintuitive that a large raw surface should heal faster than a partially healed ulcer. But that’s what happens, in nine out of ten dogs, the surgeon says, and in the tenth, there’s usually some underlying unsuspected condition which has been interfering with the healing.

But of course, it does make sense. It’s a bit like throwing pots. When you work your clay on the wheel, you shape it to bring it closer and closer to your vision — but there are times when you have to let the whole thing collapse and start afresh. Fiddling with it, like debriding the ulcer, is just not working. Go back to the raw clay.

And throwing pots is like writing (isn’t everything?). Human believes in the power of revision, working with the draft until it becomes, through successive versions, closer and closer to what it should be. But there are also times when you have to put the whole mess aside, and start fresh. Go back to the raw clay. Whatever your chosen technique — blank paper, free writing, writing against the clock, turning off the monitor and writing blind — it somehow frees the clouded vision.

Warm thanks to Trouble’s vets in Halifax and to CullenWeb Animal Eye Specialists in Moncton.


The Cone of Shame

Trouble fiFed up cropnds the yellow-splashed plastic cone that frames her head very tiresome. Almost as tiresome is the inevitable greeting from passers-by – “oh,” they say, “the cone of shame.” Sympathy quickly follows (“What’s the matter with her?”) but the first reaction always refers to shame.

Trouble’s trouble is an indolent ulcer of the cornea. She scratched her eye, somehow, somewhere, at the end of April, and now (past the middle of June) it’s an indolent ulcer – one that can’t be bothered to heal itself. Certainly it resists treatment, including but not limited to pain meds systemic and topical, antibiotic drops, lubricating gel, and even her own blood serum, spun out of a blood sample and instilled drop by refrigerated drop into the eye. Right now, it’s four kinds of drops, four times a day, with five to ten minute intervals between them. Human has a wall chart to check them off, which she does faithfully though not without grumbling.

You grumble, thinks Trouble, squinting upward and sliding her third eyelid toward the ulcer; you aren’t getting the sting and blur sixteen times a day, with only the tiniest of liver treats to compensate.

Three local vets have consulted, prescribed and debrided without making much impact on the ulcer’s indolence. Earlier this week Trouble was examined by the veterinary ophthalmologist – a round trip of 525 kms – and will make that trip again next week for a keratectomy. Human is not so secretly hoping that the pre-op examination will reveal the ulcer finally starting to heal. Time will tell.

Beach bonnet

Not the park, but pretty good!

Meanwhile, Trouble is not permitted to run free in the park, for fear of brambles. She wears her collar almost all the time: it only takes a moment to scratch or rub the painful eye, and make things worse.

And Human wishes she had a collar to prevent her from worrying her own injury. The letter has finally come from Publisher N – “Thank you for submitting your proposal, but no, we will not publish your book.” Her pride and confidence are severely damaged, despite stern self-talk.

“All published writers suffer rejection from multiple publishers. This is only the second attempt and second rejection for this proposal. You’ve got a few more to go to match Stephen King.”

“The publishers said they thought long and hard about it. It was worth consideration. In fact, they said outright it was publishable. Who are you to dispute it?”

Even the positive talk galls the injury, notice: “Who are you to dispute it?” Humans, Trouble knows, are apt to make life more complicated than it needs to be, and Writing Humans are worse. A manuscript rejection? That’s no poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Human is still intact. Her capacity to throw sticks and dish up kibble is unimpaired, and so is her capacity to rewrite the cover letter and address an envelope to another publisher.

Easter bonnet

Her good side. Photo credit: Eileen Donahoe

If she’d only stop scratching the sore spot. Someone give that Human a cone of shame, and a deadline to get the next proposal off.

What’s Next?

whats next 2In the end-of-term push, all but the essential duties sometimes get set aside. Writing time gives way to reading, and more reading. Students may dread the end-of-term deadlines for research papers and projects, but their faculty too are sometimes less than enthusiastic about tackling a briefcase full of papers or an inbox full of electronic essays. It’s hard to give each the attention it deserves, when its writer is waiting anxiously for evaluation, and the registrar sends polite reminders about deadlines to submit final grades.

underdesk 2 crop


Trouble doesn’t care. She is happy to curl up in Underdesk  for hours — as long as she still gets her walks.  And she does.  (See “essential duties” above.)



pussywillows 1

April 23rd

As the days lengthen and the temperatures rise (but slowly — it’s a late spring after a hard winter), snowbanks give way to mudholes in Point Pleasant Park, and the ground releases smells that intrigue a canine nose.

Silver grey pussywillows gradually turn to soft green plumes and then to miniatures of what Housman called the flambeaux of chestnut trees.

Meanwhile papers get read, grades are calculated and submitted, graduation day arrives … term is well and truly over, and with it, this experiment in blogging.

pussywillows 2

May 7th

What’s next? Trouble’s enthusiasm for swimming and retrieving is as predictable as the turn of winter to spring, but Troublewriting is going for the unpredictable.

There will, from time to time, be further instalments of this blog as Human continues to reflect on writing, Trouble, and Troublewriting.


There are draft entries on the “cone of shame,”  and on inukshuks. If your curiosity continues, click the follow button (look down the right hand side – it’s not obvious) and supply your email address. And comments are always welcome!

pussywillows 3

May 14th

Meanwhile, may your troubles be nothing that can’t be solved, or at least alleviated, by a walk in the park or a really good scratch.

Troubled Waters

troubled watersFor Annette

I feel the winds of God today

The wind is roaring up the Northwest Arm – not very cold, but strong enough that even in the shelter of the harbour, the pilot boat is tossing in a way that makes landlubbers feel queasy, even from a distance.

Today my sail I lift

We are leaning into the wind as we walk along the shore in the park: Trouble’s ears like Piglet’s streaming backward, Human’s chin sunk deep into her scarf. Waves are crashing onto the rocks, the wind ripping spray from their crests before they break. The air is salt.


Though heavy oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift…

I am going to a funeral this afternoon, to celebrate the life of a woman younger than I, who died from the ravages of cancer.

Yesterday, a young man, an invited guest, dropped in on a party to celebrate the end of classes at the University of Calgary, and stabbed five students to death.

Every day, the news from Syria, Ukraine, the Central African Republic seems worse, the scale of fear and hatred too large to comprehend, or tackle.

And it is Holy Week in my faith, when we walk toward a vile and shameful death with someone who was too good for this world, who wanted passionately to change it, and did so, though not quite in the way anyone expected.

If hope but light the water’s crest, and Love my bark will use…

humblest craftDown at the shore, we are acutely aware of every scrap of shelter, how even scrubby trees can break the wind, how in the lee of the old fortifications, the battering waves are muted. Instead we hear the trees sigh gustily overhead, and notice our own breath and heartbeat.

I’ll seek the seas at Love’s behest, and brave another cruise.

My dog’s name provokes many chuckles, affectionate recollections of puppy mischief. I may bring Trouble with me, but she brings joy. The world’s troubles are not like that. They are deep griefs, deep sufferings, and it is hard not to be troubled, hard to trust that hope does light the water’s crest, that there is a pilot boat – and a pilot – in every harbour, that the wind that knocks us sideways is the wind that lifts the sail.

Tomorrow Trouble and I are going to spend some time with college students who are writing final exams. Love uses even the frailest craft in the humblest ways.

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.


Jessie Adams (1863-1954) wrote “I feel the winds of God today.” It is sung to the traditional tune “Kingsfold.” I have taken some liberties with the original text.

Exam Time

therapyIt was pretty close to heaven. A whole room full of young people, all of them ready to get down on the floor and rub her belly. There was a certain amount of squealing – “so cu-u-u-te” – and a few moist eyes – “I miss my dog.” One young man approached in perfect play invitation posture – bum high, head and arms low. Trouble looked at Human for guidance – “is this guy crazy or what?” Then she rolled over and presented her belly. He obliged, though he clearly would have preferred to tussle.

An hour was enough. Apparently even heaven palls after a while. Trouble made one more round of the adoring circle, checking over her shoulder with Human between each person. Then she yawned. “She finds us boring!”

“No,” said Human. “She’s a little stressed. It’s a lot of strangers in one place, and there are other dogs here too. She’s ready for her own break.”

exhaustedWelcome to exam time, when almost any activity is more attractive than studying. Human remembers spending hours in the cafeteria, lunch long finished, carefully tearing strings of paper dolls out of folded napkins in an impromptu competition. There were no dog therapy rooms during exam period then. Today’s students talked about the sudden attraction of housework. They talked about their all-nighters finishing their last term papers. They talked about multiple choice exams and whether they were better or worse than essay-type ones.

Then they talked about Trouble’s fur, and how they missed their pets, and what kind of dog is this anyway?

Exam time, and spring – the reluctant Nova Scotian spring which is more like the retreat of chill than an inrush of warmth, more likely to show up in patches of mud than in patches of flowers. Heard in rushing water, seen in the creeping rise of snowmelt.

spring runSome of the kids are rushing toward the end of term, swept along in a torrent of caffeine and group panic. Others pile sandbags, in the form of colour-coded study schedules and special scribblers for review notes, to control the flood. Some huddle outside the exam hall, stoking their anxiety with last-minute questions; others stride purposefully past without a sideways glance, extra pens in hand, a spare battery for the calculator in their pockets.

Trouble has all the right strategies for exam time. Multiple choice exams are a bit like morning walks on garbage collection day: you sniff carefully around the possibilities, pass up the clearly undesirable bits, and assess the remaining options, quickly, knowing that it will soon be time to move on. An off-leash walk on garbage day would be even better: Trouble would move quickly from one bag to the next, getting the easy pickings, looping back later for things harder to sniff out. Dream on, Trouble. Garbage days are always leash days.

Essay exams are more like retrieving: there’s a human reader involved, not just a tally sheet, and humans, Trouble knows, are impressed by focus and drive. When the ball goes overhead, you go straight for it and bring it right back. You don’t dawdle off on a foraging expedition or meander around the field in search of sticks or a food wrapper. Answer the question right off, and you can practically hear the reader breathe a sigh of relief – here’s one who knows her stuff, one who knows what he’s doing.

Even when she brings back the wrong ball – it happens – Trouble gets praise because she’s shown she knows what to do, even if she hasn’t quite done what was expected. It’s called “showing your work” in math problems; it’s called making an argument in the humanities.

Focus and drive. Better than luck any day, whether in a field trial or an exam hall.

Trouble with ball

Photo credit: Eileen Donahoe