Brain Training – Your Dog?

Just got an invitation to purchase a book on “Brain Training Your Dog.” That’s funny. My dog doesn’t need brain training—I do.

Every time I take Savannah on a walk Alan always says, “Remember; you are in control.” That’s also funny. Savannah’s brain is fully trained for walks—and so is mine. She leads, I follow. We go in the direction she chooses. We go the distance she chooses. We stop and visit all the friendly dogs and people who are her friends. We stay away from the trio of aggressive pit bulls on the corner. We don’t chase the foxes in the field behind the cottages, or cats, or hedgehogs—but we do chase black birds and blackbirds. I don’t know why. You’d have to ask Savannah.

Savannah never forgets where she leaves anything, nor does she forget where things belong. She is a grueling taskmaster/housekeeper. Everything must be where it belongs at all times and at no time is anything to be on the floor that doesn’t belong there. Except her toys, of course. They apparently belong there.

On walks Savannah picks up lost gloves and deflated soccer balls and carries them until she gets tired. But she never forgets where she left them. She picks them up again on the next walk. I used to attempt to take gloves away from her and put them up where someone would find them, but humans never returned to claim them. Savannah did. And since she carries things to the end of her walk, then brings them back—it really doesn’t matter. They eventually get back to where they started. Me? I can put down a granola bar and not find it again for a week.

I walk through life as if I’m in a bubble. For a writer, I’m not very observant. Savannah notices everything. She spies on the neighbors and looks over fences to see what’s going on. She detects new labels on a rubbish bins and things that have been moved across yards from one side to the other. I’d have to trip over the relocated objects before I noticed. She would be great in a neighborhood watch program if only she could talk.

Some clever person noticed that dog spelled backward is God. Only God is God, but I am thankful that He made dogs. Stephanie Parker McKean: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle


It was before digital cameras, and I’ve moved a lot—so I don’t have a picture of one of the banes of my life…Carson. The picture at the top of my blog is a free image of an “ugly dog,” but who is to say what is beautiful and what is ugly?

When Luke was five, we went to Carson City, Nevada, one Saturday to explore. Before we entered a restaurant for lunch, an ugly black dog began following us. Luke pet the dog and talked to him. We went in to eat and forgot about the dog. When we came out—the dog started following Luke again. When we got to our truck the dog tried to climb in with us. We told the dog to stay. I pulled out of the parking lot and drove away. Luke screamed at me to stop. “He’s following us. He’s going to get hit by a car.” Sure enough, the ugly black dog with bat ears ran down the road behind us with cars honking at him. We didn’t know where he belonged, or how to make him stay—so we took him with us. I spent the next two weeks placing ads in papers, making phone calls—and when no one claimed him—I spent the rest of his life trying to give him away. No one wanted him. Including me.

Carson was a ridiculously long dog, with ridiculously short legs, and a ridiculously long fluffy tail, bat ears, and a snout like a Labrador. He was ugly—and stupid. Even puppies learn “come,” “sit,” “stay,” “down,” and “shake” at just a few weeks to a few months old. Carson never learned.

A few months later, Carson stampeded a herd of buffalo. Buffalo-viewing tourists fled to their vehicles. Embarrassed, I tried to drive away and leave Carson behind—but he chased us down the road and Luke screamed and cried…and I stopped to rescue him…again.

Carson barked at other dogs and at everything that moved; chased cars; dug under fences; terrorized chickens; tangled with skunks, and lost one of his back legs attacking a dog ten times his size. The leg was so mangled that the vet had to remove it. Driving home with the three-legged dog, Luke suddenly burst into tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked my sobbing son. “Mom, we have to get another dog. There’s not much left of Carson.”

It was a good thing that there wasn’t much left of Carson. When we moved to Montana, I was forced to work three jobs to support myself and Luke. One of the jobs was waitressing at an all-night restaurant. I worked from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and had to leave Luke alone in our duplex with Carson. The people in the next duplex opened the door between the two units in case of emergency. Dogs were not allowed. But because Carson had only three legs and no one wanted him—he got to stay. And because Carson was with him—Luke felt safe.

When Luke was eleven, Tom and I got married. I still had Carson. The day of the wedding, Luke and I entered Tom’s house—a mobile home—for the first time. Tom’s fluffy old cat tackled Carson and sent him tumbling across the floor. For the rest of the time we lived in that mobile home, Carson would never walk past the living room—even after the cat died and been gone for a year. Carson was not only ugly—he was stupid.

The day of liberation finally arrived. After all the years and all the attempts to get rid of Carson…he died.

I sobbed for two days.

Jesus said, “Do not judge according to appearance.” The ugly dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks black dog knew how to love.

Direct Vision


savannah over fence deserted street

None of us has direct vision. We all see through a filter of past events and experiences.

When I was four, my mother took me to an optometrist because she thought I couldn’t see clearly. She explained to the doctor, “She doesn’t color between the lines.” I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s what those lines are for.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t see them—it was that I was in love with color and spread my favorites thickly across the pages of coloring books in my own patterns and designs. After I knew about the lines—I used them.

When I was four and boarded a bus with my mother for the first time, I saw black people getting on and exclaimed, “Mom, look at all those poor sunburned people.” My embarrassed mom shushed me for my rudeness, but she didn’t understand. It wasn’t rudeness, it was compassion. I had never seen a person with black skin before. I hurt for them because I thought they were badly burned.

What we see depends on what we’ve seen before. None of us has direct vision.

Recently our collie returned to our local vet time and again dehydrated because she would not eat. Time and again, she was hooked her to a drip and we were assured that she was not too thin, and that perhaps—because she’s a smart dog—she played us, refusing to eat until she got something she liked.

None of the vets understood that Savannah…Would. Not. Eat. They had never seen her walk to her food, sniff it, make a face of human disgust, and walk away.

We finally got an appointment for Savannah at a vet hospital that had the equipment to examine her, and the first thing I heard from the vet was the inevitable, “She’s not a bad weight. Maybe we just need to adjust her food.” Her food has been adjusted so many times that we’ve given away cases and bags of various brands and kinds and still have cases more.

Again the questions. Again the subtle suggestion that I might be the problem because I worried too much. Again, the failure to comprehend the fact that Savannah… Would. Not. Eat.

Then the phone call that made me cry for two reasons. One reason, we have a sick little girl whose condition is chronic with few treatment options. And I am not an obsessed doggy mom who worries to distraction. There are physical reasons for Savannah’s lack of appetite: pancreatitis and an inflamed bowel. A vet finally saw the lines.

I was reminded of a Bible story. When Samuel was ordered by God to ordain a king from Jesse’s family, Jesse brought his sons to Samuel one at a time and God rejected all of them. Samuel asked if Jesse had any more sons. He had one more. David, a young boy who was out in the field with his father’s sheep. David, who later killed a giant with a rock and a slingshot. David who wrote most of the Psalms in the Bible. David, who became King David. David whose earthly lineage leads to Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords.

When God chose David out of Jesse’s sons, he told Samuel, “The LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

God sees the lines. Sometimes…we don’t.

Dog Sickness

Savannah at home

From the time we brought her home when she was eight weeks old our rough collie puppy has won the hearts of strangers. Now she expects everyone she meets to say, “You’re gorgeous.” “What a beautiful dog.” “I love your dog.”

Savannah looked gorgeous on the outside. She still does. But she was sick on the inside and no one knew—not even the first vet who examined her and said, “What you have here is a beautiful, healthy collie puppy who is a perfect weight. Don’t worry.”

She might have been a perfect weight when he saw her, but she was not healthy and there was cause for worry. She had quit eating. Everything. He saw her before she started losing weight.

The second vet investigated more closely. Blood samples, x-ray. Irritable Bowel Syndrome and three medications. After six days of starving herself, Savannah finally started eating. Everything.

Each day we meet folks who look fine on the outside, but who have mental or physical illnesses on the inside. Some suffer extreme pain. We can’t see their pain, so when they are unkind  we blame them, not their disease.

 “Do not look at his appearance, or at his physical stature…For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

When someone is unkind to us, we need to look deeper.

savannah in grass 6 month

When to Clap

val and me amsterdam

Recently bestselling author Val Poore ( wrote a brilliant blog on the differences between UK and US language. As a new to the UK dog owner, I decided to highlight some interesting canine differences.

Folks here don’t ask to pet your dog, they ask to “clap” it. The first time I heard that I was horrified. What loving pet owner wants a stranger to hit his or her hands together against your poor terrified puppy?

One doesn’t walk a dog on a leash here. It’s a lead. You don’t bathe your dog, you bath it. You don’t feed it supper, you give it tea. You don’t tell your dog “no” when it picks up unsavory morsels, you tell it “leave.”

I’m sure there are many other differences, because after all—babies in the UK suck on dummies, not pacifiers. They don’t wear diapers, they wear nappies. All drinks that aren’t tea or coffee are lemonade. I don’t know what lemonade is called. Bangs are “fringes” and in polite company you don’t say “poof.” But I’ll leave that one for readers to figure out.

The love for furry family members is the same in both countries. So is kindness. And God’s unfailing capacity for miracles. We took our six-month-old rough collie Savannah to North Berwick for dental surgery. We had to walk back to our B&B, a distance of about a mile. We didn’t realize when we left the clinic that Savannah hadn’t fully recovered from surgery. She suddenly plopped down on the grass, stretched out on her side and could go no further. I had already been carrying the 40-pound dog on a knee that requires surgical repair.

savannah in grass 6 month

Enter human angel. God sent him. He appeared out of nowhere and told us that the clinic had released Savannah too soon and she would never be able to walk as far as our B&B. He called the vet clinic and told them Savannah was coming back for a couple of hours. He even offered to carry her. My Texas stubbornness kicked in and I assured him that I could carry the 40-pound pup back uphill to the station. I’m on crutches now.

savannah from weeks to months

Pee on Crabs

Our rough collie is a lady. If she became homeless and had to “dumpster dive” for food—she would starve.

So, too, with her bathroom habits. She simply will not do her business on: a road, a sidewalk (pavement in the UK), the golf course, or manicured lawns. Heck—she will hardly defecate in her own yard!

A dead crab on the beach, however, fails to benefit from her gracious habits. She will pee on it in a heartbeat. It seems unseemly to abuse a corpse, but Angel Joy shows no remorse. A dead crab shell on the beach is a fair target. Most uncouth, but there you have it.

So I looked up information on crabs to find out what’s wrong with them—from a doggy perspective. Nothing. They wear a thick exoskeleton, which they shed and replace as they grow, and range in size from the aptly named tiny “pea crab,” to the Japanese spider crab with a leg span of 13 feet. They are renowned for their sideways walking, but that’s no different from politicians skirting questions. Crabs are aggressive, yet they are also known to work together to provide food and protection to their families.

And there you have it: the secret to writing interesting fiction characters that will nab readers. Complex. Layered. Not all good, not all bad. As a writer, don’t hesitate to pee on the crab.

As to why Angel Joy, who is not a writer, pees on crabs…well, I will probably never know.

seagull eating crab



The earliest “expert” I remember was my first grade teacher who chided me for coloring trees and sky such bright “unrealistic” colors. Over and over she intoned, “Trees are green, tree trunks are brown, sky is blue.”

I guess she had never seen a sunset, or autumn foliage, and she was ignorantly unaware that tree trunks are different colors, mostly grey in the Texas Hill Country.


Education is awesome—but I eschew “experts.”

My son Luke used to get upset when a high school teacher, an expert in science, repeatedly informed the class that dogs could be trained—but they couldn’t think. Luke knew better. We had a half-collie named Esther. Our other dog, Shad, would stretch out in the middle of the couch so that Esther had no room at either end and would have to take the floor. One day Esther trotted over to the front door and barked. Shad launched himself off the couch in a frenzied attack mode. Esther calmly walked back to the couch and took Shad’s place. After that, whenever she wanted the couch, Esther repeated the performance. (Shad never learned.) Trained? I think not.


One dog training expert claimed dogs only have a seven-second memory. “Never say sit down,” this expert advised. “Just say sit, because by the time you get to down, the dog has forgotten the first word.” Really?

Our dog Angel Joy hasn’t seen Andy the coal man for three years. He’s a nice guy, but scares her to death because he’s so big. If we say Andy, or coal—or heaven forbid, Andy the coal man—our usually quiet, calm Angel Joy goes ballistic.


There are health experts who are overweight. There are education experts who have never taught a class. There are parenting experts who don’t have children. There are writing experts who give advice on how to write and market books—and their own books aren’t selling.

Wise people, and those knowledgeable in their fields are blessings, but I’ve learned to question “experts.”

Experts in Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ day, the late 1400s and early 1500s, thought the world was flat and ships would fall off if they sailed too far. Columbus read in the Bible in Isaiah 40:22 that God “sits above the circle of the earth.” He reasoned that if God sits above the circle of the earth, the earth must be round. And the rest, as they say, is history.

When I need an expert, I’ll stick with that same God, the One who “made a law for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt.” (Job 28:36)


Big Dogs, Small Dogs

scot-puppyFirst the disclaimer. I am not a dog expert, “dog whisperer,” or dog trainer. The dogs in my books like the lovely rough collie Shiloh in “Bridge to Brigadoon,” plus the equally lovely collie in “Bridge to Desert Desire” and “Bridge Back” are based on dogs that have owned me and buried their memories in my heart. That said, I had an epiphany this morning about big dogs versus small dogs.

Angel Joy weeds

Small dogs are often fearless. They launch themselves at an “enemy” so much bigger than they are that it makes us laugh. Often, while they are tilting at canine windmills, bigger dogs are scrunching up to hide behind something too small when they perceive human displeasure directed at them.


I believe small dogs are courageous because their human owners constantly lavish them with love and attention. A small dog can be held on a lap and cuddled. They realize they are the center of their human’s universe and that builds them up on the inside resulting in self-confidence.


Bigger dogs don’t fit on laps after they outgrow the puppy stage. They get pushed off, ordered off furniture, stuck outside in the yard – and are often, perhaps, in trouble for being able to reach and destroy human belongings that small dogs can’t reach. Unlike small dogs, their self-confidence never gets bolstered.

blog beach bully

If this surmise is true, it should be a reminder to parents to love their children and lavish attention on them. Children can never be “spoiled” by too much love. Lack of discipline will “spoil” a child, but lack of love cripples them for life. We should love our children at every age, every stage.


Now what does this have to do with Christmas? It’s just a reminder to love our family at Christmas and on every day of the year. Our days on this earth are limited. Our love shouldn’t be.


Dog’s World

Dog owners know that dog, spelled backwards, is God. Dogs make the best people.

Angel Joy weeds

One sure cure for depression is to watch dogs out for a walk or running free along a beach. Heads up, tails wagging, sheer joy and exuberance shining out of their eyes.

Next time you pass someone out walking a dog, look—really look—at the dog. Chances are it is so proud and joyful to be walking with its owner that it will make you smile.


Dogs are praised for their unconditional love and loyalty. Another trait that makes dogs delightful is their ability to squeeze joy out of every moment. From hanging heads out car windows to catch scents on the breeze, to leaping into the air to catch Frisbees and balls, dogs excel at enjoying life.

Not everyone can own a dog and not everyone has the health to enable them to walk or care for a dog. But if you don’t and can’t have your own dog—just go somewhere and watch other people’s dogs. Then ask yourself, “Depression? What depression?”

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God provides healing in the world He made for physical and mental ills. I believe cure for depression is as simple as watching a dog and following its example: an attitude of gratitude for every moment of life.

“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD! Psalm 150:6

Author Alan McKean took some of these incredible photos of our rough collie, Angel Joy.

Look at me, Mom!

Our rough collie, Angel Joy, reminds me of a child. When we meet other dogs along the beach, she wants to show off. When she makes an especially good leap and catch, she holds the ball in her mouth and looks around to see if anyone observed her brilliance. She covets praise.

It reminds me of my son Luke when he was a child. “Mom, look!” Every parent can relate to that. “Mom, did you see that?” “Mom, guess what I did today!”

There were times when I wanted to be left alone to read a good book or do almost anything else than watch the same antics over and over, “Mom, did you see that! Look, Mom! Watch what I can do!”

Yet, as a parent – especially a single parent – I knew how important it was to give my son undivided attention even when he was acting immature and silly and I had other things to do than provide a loving, encouraging audience. How thankful I am now that I usually managed to pretend great interest in his endless somersaults, jumps off high objects, and riding a sky line down from a tree to the ground – over and over and over.

Luke graduated from earth to heaven at age 37, and I will never again have the chance to watch him, encourage him, praise him. He’s lost to me in this life.

Before Luke’s death, it was the same thing during phone calls – but it was Luke praising his daughter. “Mom, she’s so smart. I’m so proud of this girl.” “Let me tell you what she did today!” “She’s an angel!” She’s so smart and beautiful and brave.” “She can rock climb better than me.” “Let me tell you, that girl is just awesome and amazing!”

Dulcinea was only ten when she lost her daddy, but she can hold tightly to the memories of her father’s love for her and praise of her. Never did Luke speak one critical, angry or disparaging word about his daughter – my granddaughter. Dulcinea will never have to question whether or not her daddy loved her and was proud of her. She knows.

I challenge parents to watch your children at every opportunity – even if they are performing the same monotonous “trick” over and over to what seems like infinity. It isn’t. Your investment of time in your children will never leave you with regrets when God repossesses His loan. Children are gifts from God and they are only on loan to their parents.

Children are the only thing we have on this earth that will join us in Heaven. Give them what they need more than money, toys, or electronics – your time and love.


Luke Gaines Parker, Aug. 19, 1976 – Nov. 17, 2013, with daughter Dulcinea

Books by Stephanie Parker McKean: