After and Pryor: How Barnum Got His Name

Today is Barnum’s first birthday. He was born in the early morning hours of December 30, 2009. It seems an appropriate time to tell you how he got his name (and didn’t get the name I’d had in mind). I hope to put up a photo essay soon, too, with never-before-seen Baby Barnum pics. Here’s a preview.

Barnum on snow: "What's it all mean?"

What a character! Barnum during his first week home.

Before Barnum arrived, I thought I might know his name, but I didn’t. In fact, almost everything I expected (even though I convinced myself I had no expectations) was wrong. A lot of that came as a shock and a terrible struggle, but any dog will teach you a great deal if you let him.

A dog who defies all expectation and forces you to stretch and grow will teach you even more. Barnum has been, and continues to be, an amazing teacher!

While I loved Barnum from the first moment, was beguiled and infatuated, I wasn’t ready to blog about him until I’d fallen in love with him. By which I mean that I’d come to accept him, had begun to forgive myself for my mistakes in raising him, and had grown to find even his aggravating traits endearing. That took about two months, when he was about four months’ old. From then on (from his first moment here, really), I’ve grown to love him more every day. And suddenly, in the last week or two, lots of stuff is starting to “gel.” We are really communicating and enjoying each other, and we are burning through the Training Levels. (Really, I’ll post the updates and videos. I will.)

However, blogging is supposed to be a catalog of the day-to-day, the minutia of everyday life. From a blogging perspective, I’ve put myself in a pickle because I was both too exhausted and too busy to blog in Barnum’s first weeks here, and I was also not emotionally ready. However, the longer you know and love someone, the harder it is to remember the details of early infatuation! I have a lot of drafts that I’ll hopefully use to reconstruct our first few months together. But first . . .

What’s in a name?

I had no idea what I would name my puppy before he arrived. I was excited at the prospect because I’d never had the opportunity to name a dog before. My cats, Ferdinand and Velour, yes. My rabbits, mice, even fish, yes. But my three previous dogs were adults (two rescues and one rehome) who’d arrived with names they already knew, and I hadn’t the heart to add to their upheaval.

This time I had a clean slate. As soon as I’d decided on the litter and sex of the pup, friends, family, and readers wanted to know, “What will you name him?”

Many offered suggestions. I said I wanted to wait and see what suited him.

I didn’t tell most of them that I have rigid rules about naming my animals. But now the deed is done, so here’s my personal list of dos and don’ts.  (I don’t say this is the right path for everyone; just for me.)

  • Names must not be common human names. Particularly not names of people I know. For example, I know dogs and cats named Maggie, Ruth, Mary, and Laura, and I also know multiple people with these names. Who needs that kind of confusion? I forget the names of people in my life (including Betsy!) on a frequent basis. (I have “tip-of-the-tongue syndrome” as part of my cognitive impairment, and it occurs even with family members.) I also just don’t like human-sounding names for dogs or cats. Even if I don’t know someone named Alice, if I’m talking to someone and they say, “Alice just walked into the room,” I’m going to think they mean a human, and I’ll rack my brain to think of who that is, feeling increasingly embarrassed that I’m about to admit I forgot their best friend’s or child’s or partner’s name, before they continue, “Can you hear her tags jingling?” (Ohhh, that Alice. . . .)
  • I strive for a name that is as unique as my pup. Even a name that might otherwise be apt is O-U-T if I think I will run into another at the park or online. An excellent example is “Bear,” which is probably the most common Bouvier name there is, since they have such an ursine look about them. (And on more than one occasion, some of them quite hilarious, people thought my first bouv, Jersey, was a bear!) Indeed, Barnum did look remarkably like a Teddy bear when he arrived, but I already know dogs named Teddy and Bear.
  • Therefore, sadly, all Harry Potter names were lost to me. Yes, I am an HP fanatic; I got hooked when I listened to the first three books, and it’s been a passionate (though one-sided) love affair ever since. “Sirius Black” would have been an obvious choice for a big, shaggy, black dog. In fact, thirty years ago I read a science fiction book about an alien dog from Sirius (the Dog Star) and always thought I’d like to name a future dog “Sirius.” No longer. I have seen so many “Sirius Black”s on PetFinder, for instance. Bill Cosby owns a famous PBGV named Harry Potter that was shortlisted for Best in Show at Westminster a couple of years back. The service dog list I’m on already has a Hermione, an Ollivander, and probably several other HP dog names I’m forgetting. Alas!
  • It must fit something about the dog’s nature — personality, appearance, soul. Which is why I don’t like to choose a name until we’ve become acquainted.

All these deeply held beliefs were in place when, two weeks before the pup’s arrival date, I almost tossed them out the window. This was precipitated by my engaging in an immensely powerful, moving, and absorbing activity, something I almost never do:

I read a book.

(Note: I would like to paste in here a photo of me lying in bed, blissfully absorbed in a book, but we have no photos of me reading a book, which I’ll explain, below.)

Due both to my multiple chemical sensitivity and my cognitive disabilities, I usually listen to audio books only. When I do read a paper book, it needs to fit within these parameters:

  1. It’s a really old book that I own which therefore has no chemical smells (such as fragrance) or mustiness (mold) in the pages, OR it’s a new book which has not picked up smoke, fragrance, etc., from previous owners, but it has offgased long enough to not reek of ink, glue, paper, and other book materials.
  2. It’s “easy reading” — almost always fiction — such as a mystery. Thus, it doesn’t matter if I forget the characters, the plot, or other key components. I can just skate along (or rewind), and usually the relevant points become clear with repetition. In fact, sometimes I read — and enjoy! — a novel and then part-way through, I think, “Huh, this seems familiar. Have I read this before?” Sometimes the surprise ending gives it away. This is one of the gifts of brain injury.
  3. If the book does not fit into category 2, it must be a book I have read over and over in the past, so that my spotty memory is not an issue, because I am so familiar with its contents that it doesn’t matter if I forget a lot of it, again.

However, the book I read in February was a nonfiction, brand-new library book. I literally cannot remember the last time I read a library book. I don’t normally even handle a library book without using gloves or a tissue and covering my nose and mouth. (My partner reads library books, and sometimes I need to get to something underneath them, like the toilet paper. Ahem.)

I had been hankering after This Particular Book since before it came out. How come “before”? Because I’m on the author’s mailing list and was offered a reduced rate, advance, autographed copy, which I wanted so bad.

But, I did not buckle. I have been trying to be responsible. Gadget’s chemotherapy and my own medical bills the previous year were astronomical. The impending puppy came with a big price tag — not just the pup himself, but the new equipment, the air fare, and the powerchair I got to be able to walk him distances or in winter. (My other powerchair — the one that’s covered by Medicare — is only of use for getting around inside my home.)

Therefore, I told myself, “No books! No DVDs!” The author is a best seller. I was sure it would come out in audio eventually. (I’m still hoping it will.)

Then, while I was searching my online library catalog for a couple of books I thought might interest Betsy, I stumbled across The Book, right there, naked and inviting.

“Well,” I thought. “It just came out, so it must be brand new. If it’s new, maybe it hasn’t absorbed any patron’s cigarette smoke or perfume or fabric softener. Maybe it hasn’t crossed the desk of that certain despicable library that ‘sanitizes’ all books with fragranced, anti-bacterial baby wipes. And maybe, sitting on the shelves for a couple of weeks, it’s also had a chance to offgas just a little of that ‘new book smell.’ It’s worth a shot.”

The day came when my personal care assistant (PCA) picked up the one video and three books I’d requested. The video and the two books for Betsy, on top, all smelled like fragrance. Ack! Then, I picked up The Coveted Book. It had not been previously checked out! No smell! Well, okay, there was some smell — the smell of chemicals in new ink, glue, paper, binding, etc., but it was not prohibitively smelly. I had to use oxygen while reading, and the concentration gave me a migraine, but it was so, so worth it.

I should probably tell you the title, huh?

It is Reaching the Animal Mind, by Karen Pryor. The subtitle is, “Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about All Animals.”

Book Cover for Reaching the Animal Mind

It's a pretty cover, but what's inside is so much more exciting

Unless you share a similar fanaticism with this topic, or you know me very intimately, you’re likely completely underwhelmed. I already have encouraged everyone I know to read Karen Pryor’s book that started the clicker revolution, Don’t Shoot the Dog! (Which is not, for the record, about dog training; it’s about applied behavioral psychology, and what works or doesn’t work with humans, dogs, dolphins, Republicans, etc.) Actually, if you know me well, you are probably backing away from your computer, fearing that this post will devolve into a boring theoretical discussion or dog-training lecture. ‘Tisn’t so. Reading this book, and writing this post, are actually deeply personal. I put down the book to start writing because I was so choked up, I had to take a break.

Well, it’s several months since I took that “break,” during the first week of which I rapidly finished reading the book (a feat, in itself) and dealt with all of life’s other tasks, mental and physical, nerve-wracking and mundane. All of which pushed out of my mind what, exactly, in the book moved me so much, and why, and how it led to A Big Decision: What to Name the Puppy.

I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking and exactly what sections of text prompted particular thoughts and feelings, but here is what I do remember:

  • I was smiling, hugely, most of the time I was reading;
  • I was on the verge of tears some of the time I was reading;
  • I had to stop periodically because the sensations ballooning in my chest were so overwhelming that I felt like I might burst.

It’s hard to recapture a moment of true inspiration, and that’s what I was experiencing. If you don’t record it — in words or music or brush strokes — when it hits you, you likely need to move on to new sources. However, I know that part of what was so powerful for me was the awareness, all the time I was reading, that a new little life would be coming into my care, and he would be an endless source of challenge and inspiration.

So, it seemed only fitting that, as I was lying there, overwhelmed with joy and the explosions of little pieces of new information colliding with existing knowledge, that I was inspired with a name. For weeks — well, really, for years — I’d thought about what I’d name my next puppy. This would be my first service dog that I would raise from puppyhood. It was a big deal.

I was lying in bed, feeling like I wanted to laugh and cry all at once, just terribly excited; it was hard to sort out both why I was having these emotions and also what the emotions actually were. The feeling was, “Oh my God, this is wonderful. This is both what I have been doing and what I love and am so very hungry to do with my new puppy,” and “Oh my God, this is wonderful. Here is the crystallization of solutions to problems I didn’t even know I was creating, which will make me a much better mother, teacher, and partner to this baby dog who is entering my life.”

Feeling such a jumble of emotions, so elated and learning so much — how this book was making me feel — was exactly how I felt about getting the puppy. I looked down at the cover, and there was the answer — the author’s name, one of my personal heroes, Karen Pryor.

The puppy’s name would be “Pryor.”

As soon as I thought it, I knew it was right. Nonetheless, I steadfastly refused to commit to that name until the puppy arrived. I still told people, “I am not sure of a name yet, but I think, if it fits him, I will call him Pryor.” Then, when I was looking at pictures of his litter online a couple of weeks later, I thought, “But which one is Pryor?”

Boom! I caught myself. I was already thinking of him as Pryor. How did that happen?

I doubt most people react like this to Karen Pryor’s latest book. Betsy read it shortly after I did, and she really enjoyed it — it’s a good read, very accessible, with lots of useful and interesting information — but I don’t think it was a religious experience for her. For me, every chapter was a reminder of things I already knew (with a few exceptions relating to revelations about the neuroscience of why a clicker works so much better than a verbal marker), but which are so easy to forget “in the heat of training.” With every dog, I make mistakes, and I tell myself, “Okay, I’ve learned that lesson. Next time I’ll do it differently.”

On the upside, I do do it differently. On the downside, there are always new mistakes to make, not least because each dog is new and different, and each requires a different strategy. A puppy would present several new layers of newness I tried to prepare for; but on the whole, I completely failed to understand what the lived experience of puppy raising would be until I was in it up to my eyeballs. I have made so many more mistakes with Barnum than I would have thought possible!

What Karen Pryor’s — and other clicker trainers’ — books have done in the past was open my eyes to the range of possible ways to confront a problem, and see all the different ramifications for each way of responding. There are probably chefs who feel this way about certain master chefs’ cookbooks or schools, parents or teachers who feel this way about learning how to nurture children. My passion is dog training, and the relationship that comes from training and partnering with a service dog. I was loaded with expectations and sorrows and hopes and plans — for myself and for this unknown puppy — and Karen Pryor was offering me solutions. I just didn’t realize I didn’t know the problems yet.

Which is one of the reasons Barnum is named Barnum, and not Pryor. He didn’t turn out to be the lump of clay I thought I was going to mold. He turned out to be Barnum.

This is how he got his name.

Betsy drove from Massachusetts to Connecticut, then flew to Iowa. There, she picked him up at the airport from the breeder, and flew home with him. He was in a soft-sided carrier, a Sherpa bag. It was a long, long day. She was on crutches due to a knee injury, and she has multiple plane changes. (There are no non-stop flights from Des Moines to Hartford!) There was also a storm that caused a major delay. So, Betsy and the puppy really got a chance to bond. After leaving his litter and the only people he knew, of course, he came to love and trust Betsy. When they arrived home, I came out on the ramp to meet them. I couldn’t believe how tiny he was. Nobody could. We all exclaimed, “He’s so little!” None of us was used to thinking of a bouvier who was smaller than a little cat!

He did not look like a “Pryor” to me. That name seemed too serious for this funny-looking guy with the white tuft under his chin and stripe on his chest and his black hair sticking straight up from his head.

Baby Barnum first week home

Baby Barnum tries to look serious.

I thought we should start right away by giving him a chance to potty before he came in. We scooped him out of the bag and put him on the frozen, metal mesh ramp.

“AIEEEE!” Everything in the puppy seemed to say. “What is this cold stuff under my feet?! Ack!”

He jumped up and climbed Betsy. He climbed right to her shoulders.

Barnum on Betsy's Shoulder

His first night home, Barnum peeks over Mount Betsy

As he climbed, she tried to bend, because she was afraid he would fall off. He was so small, the ground was so far away. Every time she moved, though, he climbed to keep himself as far as possible from the ground.

Meanwhile, I was afraid he would fall off and get hurt.

“Grab him! Grab him!” I yelled from the ramp. (Wasn’t that helpful of me?)

“I can’t!” Betsy responded.

Wherever she reached, he climbed somewhere else. Clearly, he’d decided Betsy was his safety, and he was clinging to her. Finally, he climbed down her back, around over her hip and under her arm, where she was able to get a hold on him.

We tried putting him on the ground this time, thinking that it was the metal ramp that had shocked him, but he was no happier on the frozen mud than he had been on the ramp, and again leaped to the safety of Betsy’s back and did his climbing routine again.

“He’s quite the little acrobat!” she laughed.

I thought, “Hmm, acrobat. . . . Circus. . . . Barnum!”

Puppy Barnum with Head in Snow Foot Prints

Barnum shows his clownish side. (And his quick reversal of opinion about snow.)

That’s how he got his name, which he really lived up to. He showed himself right away to be an avid leaper, climber, and digger. He has great balance. I took him to an elementary school playground and he fearlessly clambered over metal grates and rolly-things and steps and all manner of shapes, angles, and textures.

At home, he showed his acrobat and clown side, too. I have a “backyard agility set” that comes with a collapsible tube of blue nylon. I set up the tunnel in the living room as part of his puppy socialization/enrichment experiences. Not only did he quickly and easily learn to enjoy running back and forth through the tube, with no fear at all, he also liked to go in the tunnel and, once in the middle, ,start running, like a gerbil on a wheel, causing the tube to roll across the floor. It was very funny.

Another favorite activity has always been to stand in front of one of the full-length glass doors and watch himself leap up and down. Bouviers are excellent jumpers, and Bouv enthusiasts refer to “the Bouvie Bounce.” Both Jersey and Gadget had good bounces, but Barnum leaves them in the dust. He likes to jump both from all fours and as if he were a circus bear, jumping on his hind feet.

Like most performers, he also enjoys watching himself. He knows that’s him in the glass. That became clear when he started responding to my image in the glass when I was behind him, instead of turning to look at me. I’d ask for eye contact, and he’d make eye contact with my reflection. Only when I ignored that behavior would he turn to look at me.

Sometimes, if there is something new going on, he will go to the glass to get another perspective. For example, when I started practicing getting him accustomed to gear, he did something funny. I put on an empty — and too large — service-dog backpack so he could get used to the feel of putting it on and wearing it, and doing simple things like sitting, walking, or lying down in it.

“Oh, you’re so handsome!” I said. “Look how adorable you are!”

During a break, he went to the glass and looked at himself, turning this way and that. “Yes,” he seemed to decide, “I do look very handsome.”

He continues some of his acrobatish and clownish ways. He still likes to jump, and to run, very fast, pushing a ball across the grass or snow with his nose. He likes music, and will cock his head — sometimes to extremes of cuteness impossible to describe — at certain notes or instruments. (He seems to prefer brass to strings, for example.) He has lost some of his fearlessness — he had a lot of trouble figuring out how to navigate our very steep, slippery stairway — but he’s made great progress. (A post for another time.) Tonight, in fact, was his first time on the second floor of our house! So many smells to sniff upstairs!

Onward and upward (literally!) Mr. Barnum. We have mountains to climb, and I’m not sure if or how we’ll get to the summit. For now, though, we celebrate.

Barnum and Betsy on floor: Wheee!

Being grown up doesn't mean acting mature!

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2 Responses to “After and Pryor: How Barnum Got His Name”


  1. 1 Lisa and Baron January 8, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    LOL Barnum is adorable! Now you need a Bailey ;)

    • 2 Sharon Wachsler January 8, 2011 at 11:50 pm

      Thanks, Lisa!
      You know, soon after we got Barnum, I met someone on a dog list whose dogs were named Barnum and Bailey, and I felt so unoriginal. But her dogs were a different breed and size, so I comforted myself that they were not likely to get mixed up.


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