Growing up fast

We have video evidence of how fast Nell, our yellow Lab no-longer-puppy, is growing up.

Back in February, she was just a couple of months old, enjoying the snow with her sister Alice, our black Lab.

And here we are in mid-December visiting Santa.

She still has some puppy-like tendencies, but Nell is pretty much a grownup dog these days — and quite well behaved, too.

Alice and Nell

Alice is a black Labrador retriever mix. Nell is a yellow Lab. They both came from rescue organizations, Alice from Black Dogs & Company Rescue, and Nell from Brookline Labrador Retriever Rescue, where Julie and I are volunteers.


Alice is more of a true rescue dog. She came from a shelter in Georgia originally, was living on the streets in who-knows-what conditions, and had puppies along the way (who were also rescued). When we first got her in the fall at about 18 months of age, she had some adjustments to make — in particular, she didn’t like all of the noises in and around our townhouse, so she mostly stayed in the bedroom.

But since we’ve settled in a house and she’s gotten more comfortable, we’ve seen Alice’s personality emerge. She’s gentle, playful, and a perfectly approachable size (mid-50 pound range). She has never really been a dog who cowers at thunder and lightning and things like that, as some dogs who have had trauma in their lives sometimes do, but she is still weirded out by a few odd noises, such as air conditioners and ceiling fans and garbage trucks (and she does not like kitchens or dining rooms or bathrooms). Instead of hiding and shivering in fear, she tends to pause and crouch, like she’s trying to figure out what she’s dealing with. She’s very smart, and we’re grateful that she’s trusting us more. We’ve also been happy to note how easily she has charmed our friends and family members who have met her, just as she’s charmed us.


And then there’s Nell. She was the puppy of a pair of dogs who ended up rescued by Brookline, so she was raised by a caring, knowledgable volunteer until she reached the eight-week mark. Then we got her, and it’s been the four of us ever since.

Nell is extremely well-behaved. Julie can take a lot of credit for that (she’s the real dog person and expert in our family), but Nell is also very good-natured and wants to please. She’s high-energy as Labs almost always are, and is full of fun. She’s also getting awfully big — probably nearing the 80-pound mark, with more growing likely in her future. That means she doesn’t always know her own strength. Her hugs can turn into inadvertent full-body assaults (complete with bruises and the occasional scratch) if she gets her paws on you.


Maybe the best thing about adopting these two dogs has been their relationship with each other. Nell absolutely adores Alice. Nell has grown quickly from a tiny puppy trying to keep up with Alice on our walks into a big Lab who is quite a bit burlier than her older sibling. Fortunately, Alice not only tolerates Nell’s intrusions on her space, she is not afraid to mix it up when Nell wants to play rough. They also enjoy walking together, and are good enough on leashes that one of us can walk them both.

Julie and I think that Nell is a positive influence on Alice’s mood, too. Alice sees Nell’s complete contentment and utter trust in us, and she thinks that maybe Nell’s onto something. We’re glad they enjoy chilling with each other, and that they’re getting a kick out of being a part of our little family.

Race report: 2014 Harrisburg Marathon


My experience at the 2014 Harrisburg Marathon was overwhelmingly positive. I might have had visions of a sub-4 hour finish, but I didn’t quite get there, ending up at 4:09. I was in much better shape than a few months ago at the Mount Nittany Marathon (where I ran a 4:45 and fought a nagging ankle injury). Harrisburg was a fine way to end my racing season. It is a well-supported race that gives a nice view of the city.

A highlight for me was getting to see not only Julie at several stops along the course, but also our new dog.

aliceAlice is a black Lab. She’s young and on the small side for the breed, and she’s from Black Dogs & Company Rescue in Maryland. The trip to Harrisburg was one of her first big outings since we got her a few weeks ago, and Julie said that Alice did very well, interacting with people, surviving a tail pull from a visiting toddler, and appearing unintimidated by the crowd and hubbub accompanying the race.

Seeing Julie and Alice definitely put an extra spring in my step.

Brady: Our new foster dog


For the third time, Julie and I are fostering a Lab. Our recent houseguest is named Brady.

The first and best thing to note about Brady is that he absolutely loves people. He’s quickly grown attached to us and has loved it when we’ve had guests over. He lives for petting. Brady is starting to play with his toys a bit, but isn’t too into that type of activity right now.

What we know about Brady is that he was a farm dog used for breeding. He’s 7 years old and was picked up by Brookline Lab Rescue. We’ve been writing about him on his blog, found on the Brookline site.

This is a good opportunity to talk a bit about fostering. When we had Layla, we welcomed two foster dogs into our house in Greensboro, N.C., Clover and Honey. Both were successfully adopted, and both were great dogs, easy to manage, and mostly got along with Layla. Brady is a little different. He is great, yes, but also more of a challenge because he has struggled to get used to walking on a leash. We’re working with him, but he’ll require some additional training and patience from his new owner.


I imagine that fostering can be a daunting prospect to some people, because they’re concerned about growing too attached to their foster dog (the ultimate goal with fostering is to find a person or family who will permanently adopt the dog). And yes, we found that with both Clover and Honey, it was not easy to say goodbye at the time. But we were both so happy with the new homes we found for the dogs. That made it a lot easier in the end.

Fostering takes time, energy, and effort. We’ve found that it has been more than worth it. It is a nice way to do some good for animal welfare, and Brady has given us a great deal in return.

UPDATE: We’re happy to note that Brady has found his permanent home. We’re going to miss him, but it is a great feeling to know that he now has a place to call his own.

On Layla leaving our pack


Layla was Julie’s dog, first and foremost, so any story about Layla is also a story about Julie.

I married into this family of two. They adopted me. It took Layla a long while to get comfortable with the idea of this particular addition.

The turning point was when I moved to North Carolina and my schedule shifted so that for several months while Julie was off teaching, I spent much of the day alone with Layla before heading out to an afternoon and evening shift. Those daily hours together were when we really got to know each other. I threw her the ball in the backyard — her favorite activity in the world, as it is with many labs — and she retrieved it. We went on walks and runs. We explored our new neighborhood together. I gave her treats — apples and carrots, mostly, because of her allergies.

Julie always joked that our “pack” had a set order: Julie 1, Layla 2, and yours truly 3. OK, it wasn’t really a joke. It was the way it was. Layla would remind me by, for example, jumping on the bed and blocking my way onto it, or cutting me off on the way to the bathroom in order to request a treat. It wasn’t mean-spirited. Just letting me know where she thought I stood in the pack membership.

It’s the relationship between Julie and Layla, though, that was so special. Julie adopted Layla from an early age and together, they battled Layla’s many health problems — severe allergies, digestion-related issues, a first small cancer scare, and finally, an ultimately fatal sarcoma, a disease that robbed Layla of oxygen in her red blood cells, reduced her strength and appetite, and over the course of about half a year, finally sapped her of her energy and her ability to walk steadily.

Her death in early May 2014 — what can I say about it? She was only a bit more than five years old. She was a wonderful, intelligent companion with her own complicated personality — unlike many labs, she wasn’t big on petting and hugs and that sort of affection. She was outgoing and affectionate to some strangers and visitors, standoffish to others. She was great with kids. She bonded with many other dogs. She was fearless when it came to travel. She bounced back from multiple surgeries and blood transfusions. She wasn’t scared of trips to the veterinarian. Many humans could learn a lot from her courage. I know I did.

It may be hard for some who haven’t had this sort of relationship with a dog to understand, but she was a true and full member of our family. Not a pet to be cooed over and babied.

The toughest part (and there are many tough parts) of mourning Layla, for me, has been her absence in so many of our daily routines. Meal times and taking her outside and returning home to let her out. We planned trips and vacations around her. She was always there, and if she wasn’t there, she was often on our minds.

Last year, on a memorable vacation, we visited a beach in North Carolina with Layla. It was the happiest she had ever seen Layla, Julie said. We played with her on the beach each morning, took her on walks and to the little shops in town. She loved the ocean. That’s where we plan to spread her ashes.

Layla’s legacy will live on. Julie is writing a book about her life. Following the example of a local couple here, we hope to start a foundation that provides funding for cancer treatments for dogs on behalf of families who can’t afford to pay for them.

When I focus on Layla’s brief life, I can’t help but struggle with the unfairness that she only lived for five years and a handful of weeks. Cancer usually strikes dogs late in their lives. Layla packed plenty of living into those years. I am comforted by that, and by the wonderful people who have offered their support, in particular the veterinarians and staff at Metropolitan Veterinary Associates.

Layla will live on. It’s just a shame that it won’t be in our little pack of three any longer.

Special Olympics at Widener

Last month, Widener University played host to the Special Olympics. Basketball and swimming were the main events.

I had never been to a Special Olympics event before. The gym and fieldhouse were packed with competitors and supporters.

It was a wonderful time and an inspiring day, as you might imagine. Skill levels varied, of course, but I was struck by the level of competition on some of the basketball courts and in the pool. I saw some very serious competitors out there.