Monday, September 05, 2005


In Which My Bark Is Worse...

I always wanted to have a great dog. Unfortunately, for most of my life, the canines we brought into our home seemed to fall just short of earning that adjective.

The first one I remember--Ziggy--was a hunting dog who didn't actually live in the house. Consequently, he craved human attention and always loved to see my brother and me when we could come out to the pen where he lived. Unfortunately, he was a little too excitable and one day, about two months after he came to live with us, he went to jump on me but his paw slipped and he ended up gouging face, leaving me with a scratched cornea and a dramatic trio of clawmarks running down my face.

Not too much later, a series of violent break-ins began occurring within a few miles of our house in rural New Hampshire. The criminals who broke in and ransacked the houses seemed to target isolated homes on remote dirt roads, exactly like the one we lived on. My father was working nights a lot then, so he traded Ziggy in for Porsche, a Doberman who was so imposing and frightening, he scared the living crap out of the children he was meant to protect. In his defense, he was exceedingly well trained, a very even-tempered dog and very gentle with us boys, which is more than I could say for Ziggy.

My father's foreman on the night-shift was a man named Mr. Weeks. He was a tall, bald, scary fellow who had an imperious way about him. In particular, he had an annoying habit of showing up unannounced on my father's days off, usually just as supper was being put on the table. But often as not he also showed up to get my father to help him with one of a variety of side projects he was always working on. He never knocked. He would just open the door to our breezeway and call out. One time he caught my mother, in her underwear, on her way back from the laundry room. After that, it seemed to all of us that he went out of his way to be as quiet as he could coming to the house, the pig. My father resented Mr. Weeks' tendency to treat him like on-call help, but he needed the job and so he never said anything.

He also never said anything about Porsche, so one weekend, as my father, brother and I were watching the Red Sox on TV, we were so engrossed in the game, we didn't hear Mr. Weeks sneak in from the breezeway. The only sign we had that anything was amiss was the fact that Porsche suddenly vanished from his place on the living room carpet.

We lived in a single-story ranch house with a basic layout: living room connected to dining room connected to kitchen connected to breezeway. When Porsche leapt from the living room, he cleared the dining room table. And I mean that in every sense of the word. Dishes and flowers and glasses went flying and Porsche touched down in the kitchen. We heard the bang of the breezeway door and by the time we got to a window, all we could see was Mr. Weeks' truck rolling backwards down the driveway. Only Mr. Weeks wasn't in the truck. We could see his long legs dangling from the open driver's side door. At least, we could see one of them. The other was in Porsche's mouth. He had caught Mr. Weeks just as he'd started the truck, but before he had time to close his door. He was a big man, but Porsche yanked him from the cab with ease. By the time my father called him off, Mr. Weeks was curled in a ball, crying for help.

Not too many months later, my father took a job in Maine and didn't have to work for Mr. Weeks anymore. But the man never showed up at our house unannounced again.

When we moved to the Midwest, we left Porsche in the care of one of our neighbors, which was fine with my brother and me. We both preferred small dogs, but my parents refused to get us one, until New Year's Eve, 1977. It was a cold, gray afternoon and my father and I were riding back home from a friend's house in the country, when we spied a small animal staggering along the side of the dirt road. I thought it was a raccoon or fox, but as we neared, I saw it was a beagle pup. She was soaked to the skin and shivering. Her snout was skinned up and she had broken ribs as though she'd been beaten. At the time, my father was not the most compassionate fellow when it came to animals, but he pulled over and let me grab the pup, who tried to run from me. She had a sore paw, though, and fell when she put weight on it. I wrapped her in my coat and brought her home. I started calling her Pilgrim, since I had learned in school that the word meant "wanderer" and so the name stuck.

Pilgrim was a clever dog who learned to beg and shake hands and even fetch the paper from the end of our quarter-mile long driveway, but she was far from perfect. When she was alone, she loved to tear up books and magazines and string toilet paper from room to room. She was a tiny dog, probably the runt of her litter, and once she got into the bathroom and fell into the empty bathtub, whose curved porcelain walls were too high and slick for her to escape. By the time we got home and found her, she had pooped twice in that tub and then proceeded to smear it all over in her vain efforts to escape. She was also a bit of a coward. For example, she was scared of any wild animal, including rabbits, which struck us as a bit of a liability for a hound dog. She also hated riding in the car, and would burrow behind my brother or me whenever we'd drive somewhere. Every once in a while, she'd actually become car sick, but always without warning. The first sign she gave you was the moment when she deposited half-digested Gainesburger down the back of your pants.

Not too long after Pilgrim, a friend who worked at a nearby truck stop brought us a small, black Cairn terrier, who she had found roaming the parking lot for several days. Since we already had a Pilgrim, we decided to call this one Mayflower. She was a close to the perfect dog as we'd have growing up. She was a kind, sweet, loving dog and smart as a whip. She earned her keep, which scored her major points with my father. She was a terrific mouser, even better than the cats we eventually acquired. She was fearless too. Once, when I was playing in our backyard with the dogs, I saw something lumbering through the bushes, coming straight towards me. It was an ugly white possum, and it scared the bejesus out of me. It looked like a giant rat and as it trotted across the yard at me, I screamed in panic. Pilgrim ran the other way. But not Mayflower. Although the thing was as big as she, May charged it, got it by the neck and shook it til its neck broke.

Unfortunately, killing was something May was all too good at. My mother was forever finding dead frogs and mice--or bits of them--littering the kitchen and living room floor like some children's story gone horribly awry: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride...Down the Dog's Throat, perhaps, or Angelina Ballerina and the Mouseland Massacre. May also brought home snakes, rabbits and other critters. The last straw came when she brought home a chicken from the neighbor's henhouse. Not too much later, we moved back east to a suburban neighborhood where there were few critters. Pilgrim and May both started to slow down with age, but they still often managed to get into trouble.

After those two died of old age, my parents acquired two of the stupidest dogs in the world. Taffy was a spaniel of some type with some inbreeding issues and a brain the size of a marble. By this time, my mom had acquired several cats, and Taffy's main pursuit in life was to follow them around, waiting for the all-too-frequent moments during the day when they would visit the litter box. Taffy happily, eagerly devoured any deposits they left. Sometimes, she didn't even wait for the cats to, um, completely release their payload, which led to some dramatic yowling and scrabbling and flinging of litter, now I can tell you. My own sphincter tightens just thinking about it.

(Hey, I bet that was a good spot to insert a vomit alert, huh?)

But my God, Taffy was a towering intellect compared to Dodger, an enormous, overweight beagle my brother found wandering campus one night at one of his security jobs. Dodger was like the Forrest Gump of dogs, only not nearly so entertaining or lovable. He regularly walked into walls because he was too stupid to avoid them. He couldn't navigate a flight of stairs because he couldn't figure them out. He was forever nosing around in boxes or trashcans, but because his head was so big, he'd always get stuck. Many's the evening that was punctuated by sudden distant bumping and thrashing in some far-off room, as though a brawl had broken out. Then we'd hear a muffled "Morf! Morf!" and rush to extricate the poor bastard before he suffocated--or knocked himself senseless running blindly into a door jamb. And here's the thing: as soon as we'd rescue him, often as not he'd go right back to sniffing the box or trashcan and get stuck all over again. My parents once spent over a thousand dollars on emergency surgery for Dodger after he woke them up in the middle of the night with an ungodly wheezing, hacking noise. They got him to the vet in time. Know what they found in his esophagus?

Oh go on, you'll never guess.

Okay I'll tell you: A pair of rawhide work gloves and a Hot Wheels diecast car. All complete and intact.

So you can imagine my glee, my sense of good fortune, to have the dog I have now. I'm sure this is no secret to any of you who have read the few of Blaze's adventures I've recounted here. Aside from his tendency to snarf food from tables, countertops and even children's open mouths, he really is the ideal dog. He treats Art Lad and the Brownie like they were his own. He provides no small measure of security for my family and peace of mind while I'm away. And while it's true that he did once wreck our downstairs and call my mother on the speed dial, I think it's fair to say he had cause. What's more, he has never gotten his head stuck in a bucket, nor has he ever devoured any form of garment or toy. Or poop, for that matter.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I have to report that he is not perfect either.

Of course, Her Lovely Self has maintained this all along, but I didn't really see evidence for myself until fairly recently. This summer, when HLS and the kids were taking him for a walk, he almost attacked a male neighbor who dashed outside to ask my wife a question, then just as quickly dove for his own porch railing when Blaze, interpreting the dash as an aggressive move, launched himself up the driveway in a pre-emptive strike. HLS is a petite woman and was alarmed to discover she couldn't control our dog, who weighs more than half what she does. If he really decided to go after something, she realized, she'd be powerless to stop him.

He's also become increasingly aggressive towards anyone who approaches our front door, charging the entry with much growling and barking as soon as the doorbell is rung. He used to reserve this treatment for any deliverymen or repairmen, but this summer he's extended his special welcome to everyone: kids who stop to see if my children can come out to play, my wife's friends (they who form the cadre of hot at-home moms I secretly refer to as the Yummy Mummies), and even me, on one or two dark and rainy nights. Her Lovely Self finds this behavior particularly onerous, since these mad dashes have left several noticeable (well, to her anyway) gouges in her new hardwood floor. And about two months ago, in his zeal to reach the door before my wife and the Brownie did, he blew between them, nearly knocking them both over like tenpins.

But the last straw probably came last month, when Blaze actually slipped his collar and took off for an extended sabbatical around the neighborhood. In the past, he has nearly always responded to verbal commands--or at least a vigorous shake of the Milk Bones box--but not this time. When HLS and the kids finally recovered him, he had crossed the busy boulevard outside our development, and he returned more or less wearing an expensive silk blouse (where he acquired this, we still have no idea).

Now, Her Lovely Self generally does not issue ultimatums. However draconian they are, ultimatums assume a choice: do what I want or I'll do something extremely unpleasant, such as leaving, or forcing you to forage for your own dinner and/or clean underwear.

HLS doesn't truck with choice--it's really a formality anyway, right? No, she simply announces her will. In this case, when I returned home from work, she handed me the mud-streaked silk blouse and said, "It's time for obedience training."

"Oh thanks, honey, but don't you think you've got me pretty well trained by now?" I asked, realizing even as I said it that an injection of levity at this juncture was about as unwelcome as a pelvic examination.

Quickly shifting my demeanor to something more acceptable (when in doubt, abject subservience and unquestioning compliance always works) I went to the phone book, but to my surprise, Her Lovely Self handed me a scrap of paper. "This is who we're going to call," she said. And by "we," she meant "me."

On the paper was the name of a woman--let's call her Cecilia--who had trained a neighbor's dog. But she was no ordinary obedience trainer, I discovered, as soon as I called her. For one thing, she made house-calls, preferring to train the dog in his natural environment. For another, she didn't advocate the use of traditional training devices, such as choke collars. Or verbal commands, for that matter.

"So, wait a sec," I said. "You don't teach the dog to respond to 'No' or 'Stop' or 'Heel'?" I asked. "How do you teach them to obey you?"

"Oh, it's not so much teaching them, honey," she replied. "We're going to teach you."

"I don't understand," I said. "Teach me to...what?"

"To speak in your dog's language," she said.

Oh great, I thought. My wife wants me to hire The Dog Whisperer...


Hey there MM, hope you're starting to feel better there. Your dog sounds like a really cool dog even if he is a bit of a handful at times. My parents' last dog passed away from old age a couple years ago and I really miss him, though, so I may try and get a pet sometime in the future (but not right away.)
Ya know, after reading the past adventures of your hapless head, I am truly amazed you are able to write as well as you do. Anyone with that many head injuries should be a vegetable by now! Can't wait to hear how the dog, er, MM training went. LOL Dog whisperer...
This is going to be so good. SuperNanny for dogs - loving it.

Feeling better?
don't knock that dog whisperer stuff -- it actually works (Princess Maggie had an unfortunate aggressive bout that we had to deal with)

feeling better??
You seem to be doing a little better at least. Glad to see it.
We had a 100lb Husky/Border Collie/Bouvier mix that would bark at anything in a uniform. Mailman was usually frightened, she could bite clean through a Reader's Digest, but it was embarassing when she barked at the police. And get this, her name was Molly...isn't that sweet?
This sounds fun...

Can't wait for the second installment.
Yes ... the vomit indicator would have been nice.

I was freaking having my breakfast when I read that. Thank you. (I should really learn to not eat and read your post)

Gosh ... I am so hooked on this new story.
There actually is a show called the "Dog Whisperer". I think it's on the NatGeo channel. I hear he got a couple mastiffs in rehab for kibble-addiction.

I myself have a beagle...Duke, 2.5 years old. He as well is not the brightest dog. He has a penchant for Q Tips and expensive art pens. My greyhound, Gee, is a five-time champion counter-surfer. Nice to see dog-people who blog...hard to talk about your dogs with non-dog people...rock on, man...

Beagles are the weirdest breed of dog I've ever met. Growing up, my mother had one that preferred to sleep under the couch and ate as much cheese as he could get his greedy little paws on (to this day, we don't have cheese and cracker platters at holiday dinners).

When I was seven, my dad brought me home a little Beagle/Chihuahua mix we named Pinky. Pinky was very smart, and very affectionate, but she was strange. She looked both ways before crossing the street--and we lived on a busy two-lane highway. Since the diameter of her head was smaller than that of her neck, staying on her leash was a courtesy. When she wanted off, there was no obstacle. She'd just take her paw, get it under the collar, and vwoop! off it came. She also had a fondness for cheese, but I'm pretty sure she was no relation to the other Beagle.

Every person I know who has had a Beagle or a Beagle cross-breed has said they are strange, strange dogs.

Good to see you writing. You must be feeling better. I hope so.
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