Yesterday was Murphy’s 4th birthday. His big present was spending the day at doggy daycare, or “camp” as we call it (he knows that word and gets very excited when he hears it). Camp is Murphy’s favorite place in the whole world. He recognizes the route we take to get there and starts shaking miles before we even pull in the driveway. Once we arrive, he makes a mad dash for the door, dragging me along behind him. After he says hello to the staff and they prepare him for playtime, he’s turned loose into the large daycare room with all the other dogs. And every time it’s the same scene: they open the door to let him in, he takes enough steps to barely get his whole body in the room, and then he falls down on the floor with all four legs up in the air. All the dogs take turns sniffing him to make sure he’s O.K. and when they’re done, Murphy bounces up and runs around the room hoping someone will chase him. Chase is his favorite game. Whenever my husband and I are doing yard work that involves rakes or shovels, Murphy taunts the gardening tools until we chase him around the yard with them. I can’t imagine what our neighbors think of this game.
Of all the presents Murphy received for his birthday, camp was definitely his favorite. He loves other dogs. I’ve often contemplated getting a second dog for him to play with, but that would double food expenses, kennel bills and the amount of hair collecting on my living room rug. Not long after we brought him home as a puppy, we discovered his infatuation with other dogs. At puppy class, Murphy paid no attention to either Ryan or me and focused solely on the other puppies in class. The first ten minutes were free play so the puppies could expel some of their extra energy with the intent that they’d pay better attention in class. For Murphy, however, this had the opposite effect. When it was time to get down to business, he would turn his back to us and stare at all the other dogs. One of the skills required to graduate from puppy school was to hold your dog’s attention for five seconds. That’s not very long, right? Well, we couldn’t even get Murphy to turn and look at us. We tried food. He didn’t care. He has never been food motivated (until you open a bag of shredded cheese or he smells the lid being removed from a rotisserie chicken). We tried toys. He didn’t even glance over his shoulder. We even tried different names when the teacher suggested that “Murphy” wasn’t the name he wanted to be called. Nothing mattered, nothing except all those other puppies who were so obediently staring into their owners’ eyes.
Needless to say, Murphy didn’t graduate. He went back for another round. Pretty soon, he towered over all the other puppies in class. But his focus never changed, all he cared about was breaking free and running around with his classmates. My frustration level escalated every week because not only was my dog not looking at me and failing puppy class, but this also meant that he wasn’t coming when he was called. That was a skill that wasn’t just a passing requirement, but vital for his future. The teacher eventually took pity on Murphy and sent him to the next level, but it didn’t change anything so we quit going. I hoped a little distance, and maybe some age, would help him focus. And it did, but not entirely.
A couple of years later, we signed up for a dog training class through our local community education program. Much to our utter shock and amazement, Murphy was the best dog in class. There was another Golden Retriever who could launch from a sitting position and jump straight up to kiss his owner square on the nose. As impressive as his vertical leap was, I constantly wondered if there was a fence that dog couldn’t jump over. The energy required to achieve such a task ran rampant through that dog and he never stopped moving, or barking. We stayed on the opposite side of the room. There were several dogs in class who liked to bark. And bark. And bark. But Murphy never took part in their shenanigans. Instead, when we weren’t working on drills, he curled up on the floor at my feet and took a nap. I couldn’t believe this was the same dog that only passed puppy class out of pity from the teacher. I even got him to hold my attention! And when he was on a leash in class, he would come when he was called! As exciting as this was in class, I couldn’t get him to do it at home. Maybe he just needed a little more time to mature. I hoped it wasn’t too much more time.
Because of his refusal to come when he’s called, Murphy doesn’t go to dog parks or places without a fence. We are very careful when we have visitors over and constantly remind them to keep the gate to the yard closed. Once a man doing work on the house left the gate open and let the dog out. Luckily, Murphy was so excited to see the man in our driveway that he went right to him and was easily grabbed. Now he’s either locked in his crate or goes to camp when work needs to be done. Camp, ironically, is one of the few places Murphy will actually respond to his name. I think it’s because he’s exhausted when he leaves and he’s ready to go home and sleep on the couch so he’s more willing to be captured and contained. Regardless of the reason, it’s always a good feeling to see my dog staring me in the eyes and coming to the sound of my voice.
Murphy has a taught me a lot over the years, but most importantly, he has taught me patience and perseverance. Dogs don’t change their behavior immediately. They need to be taught. And they need to be reminded, quite often. But on those days when we’re practicing out in the yard and he comes running at the sound of my voice, it’s all worth it. All those days of embarrassment and frustration in puppy class fade away and I’m left with the reward of hugging my dog and burying my face into his soft ears as I tell him what a good boy he is. When he was a puppy, he might have just been at that age when he was too cool for his parents and all that mattered were his friends (remember that age?). Now that he’s older and wiser, maybe he’s come to appreciate the importance of a big hug and kind words. We still have a long way to go, but at the same time, it’s nice to look back and realize how far we’ve come since he was a puppy.
You're never too big to sit in my lap...
...but it would be nice if you'd share the covers.
Cooking can be very similar to training a dog. You don’t always understand what you’re doing and things don’t always turn out the way you expect. But with enough patience and perseverance, you end up creating something you’re very proud of and it can serve as a mile marker for how far you’ve come in your journey. For Murphy’s birthday, I wanted to make a special cake for my special boy. And I thought it needed to match him in some way so I chose a pumpkin cake. But when I went to the grocery store to stock up on ingredients, I encountered an obstacle. Apparently there is a shortage of canned pumpkin. The shelves in the grocery stores where the cans of pumpkin typically reside are empty except for signs announcing their absence and hopeful return around September. I considered trying a different recipe, but had my heart set on a pumpkin cake for Murphy so I decided to keep on trying. After trying several stores and asking some friends if they had any cans stored in their pantries that they could part with, I finally found some cans of organic pumpkin at a local grocery store. Walking down the aisle and seeing those orange cans on the shelves gave me that feeling of Murphy coming when he is called in the backyard. I felt triumphant. So while Murphy was celebrating his birthday at camp with all of his friends, I set to work in the kitchen baking his special cake and wrapping his presents. I did make one change to the recipe however. Instead of the Raisin Brown Sugar Double Boiler Icing and the Raisin Sour Cream Icing, I made Cream Cheese Frosting (click here for the recipe). If you don’t like raisins or don’t want to take on the challenge of a boiled icing, this is a perfect substitution and this recipe made more than enough to frost a 2-layer cake.
When I arrived at camp that afternoon to pick up the birthday boy, he came running right to me. My heart melted. He was so tired from playing that he almost left without saying thank you to the staff for the great party and the presents they gave him (this place is awesome, I can’t believe they sent him home with presents! I love taking my dog to a kennel that truly understands how our pets are a part of the family and they give them the same love they receive at home…including lots of snuggles and birthday presents. No wonder Murphy loves camp so much!).
After he spent the afternoon resting on the couch, it was time for his second party. And more presents!
Murphy doesn’t care so much about removing the wrapping paper from the gift as he does snatching the present as soon as a part of it is showing and insisting on taking it outside to chew on.
He had several gifts to unwrap, but as soon as they were all uncovered, the new posse of toys was carried outside and introduced to the backyard.
Once the toys had passed initiation and were introduced to all his old toys (Murphy is very formal and likes to make sure everyone has been properly acquainted), it was time to come in for cake.
It smells good, but how does it taste?
Ryan and I had to try it out first to make sure it was O.K. and then we shared a small piece with the birthday dog. He sniffed it out for a while, probably investigating this food that was the same color as him, and then dove right in. Since cheese is one of his favorite foods, I’m sure the frosting was the best part. As for Ryan and I, we fell in love with how moist this cake was and what a perfect combination it was with the cream cheese frosting. Every bite reminded me of autumn, changing leaves and cooler weather (a nice thought on a tropical day). Although it may have been a bit out of season, it was the perfect recipe to celebrate my pumpkin-colored dog’s birthday.
Happy birthday Murphy! During the past four years, you have brought such happiness, excitement, love and laughter into our lives. You have taught us so much, not only about raising a dog, but about ourselves and life as well. There is no better escape from the daily grind than curling up with you, snuggling my nose into the fluff behind your ears and smelling the sun and backyard on your fur. You fill my heart with joy. I hope you had a wonderful birthday and I can’t wait to celebrate many, many more with you. Maybe some year I can talk Ryan into getting you a puppy for your big present. Or maybe even a horse! And don’t worry, I know he keeps threatening to throw away some of your old toys to make room for the news ones, but I’ll protect them for you. It’s the least I can do in return for everything you’ve done for me. Well, with the exception of the holes you’ve dug in my backyard of course. But even that is worth it if it means I get to have you in my life. You truly are my best friend.