Culture: Stories & Lit
Lessons for a service dog in training
Jake piper’s making slow sense of the Home command. I’m not sure how much he’s really got it. He follows Puzzle readily when she leads us home, but I notice that he is clearly following her. He is a moment behind her dance steps, always, and doesn’t appear to be making any choice of direction. When I give him a handful of trial runs beside her, I realize that as long as she is with us, he will be content to let her lead. I don’t think he’s got it. It’s time to work him on the Home command alone.
I’ve watched him work his nose since the very first day he came to us, and what I know about Jake Piper is that he’s got a keen sense of scent and a high drive impulse. But, unlike Puzzle, he doesn’t have six years of finding a specific something and leading me to it with his nose. Jake also naturally works more head down across the turf than head up across the wind. He can trail a rabbit’s recent path through our back yard quite easily, but it’s Puzzle, head up, who seems to snag the airborne scent of passing humans long before they reach the house. It’s Puzzle who picks up on the roof-hugging squirrel pressed flat to the tiles above us. Of course, she is a field dog by birth and long trained to work air scent, and he is all raw nose talent and completely unversed. I’m interested to see just how quickly he picks up the Home command and recognizes what I need him to do. I’m curious if he’ll consistently backtrack our trail or if he, too, in time will simply take us home by moving from scent zone to scent zone regardless of the path we took outbound. It’s possible he won’t pick up this command at all.
Jake learns words quickly, so I start with teaching him what I mean by home. Walking along the boundary of the property, I’ll suggest we go home, and then, as we approach the front of the house, tell him to find the door. Jake has successfully learned that the Door command can mean door in as well as door out, so I hope to build on that understanding. Where once it was just about finding the door, Jake’s task now demands he find home and the door. For a week’s worth of sessions, I simply say, “Let’s go home,” as we approach the house, adding the Door command as we step onto the property. Jake learns commands well. The first time I say, “Let’s go home,” along the back fence of the property, and he chooses to run the length of the fence and then turn right to get to the front door, I mark it as a success. Yes, he did pee over other dog marks on the way—a quick hike of leg out of form rather than function— but he got us there. He enjoys the command, the job, and the big, big praise for a good dog doing well. In this he is much like Puzzle. Home is a happy command to give a once abandoned dog like Jake. Every time we work it, I’m reminded that in a way Home celebrates what he nearly never had.
We begin to train farther away. This is tougher for Jake, working across a merry universe of distractions. Even one house down from ours there are enticements: a cat arching in a window, any number of piss marks on trees, a child’s sock, a dead pigeon. Before we can nail the Home command, Jake has to reliably Leave It, a term he now understands. Usually good about it, he occasionally plays dumb and lunges for whatever (Never heard that command in my life). He also plays deaf (Even if I do know the command, I didn’t hear it).
Jake’s a curious beast, leaving the taunting cat and the rotting pigeon much more readily than the piss marks, leaving the child’s sock most reluctantly of all. He doesn’t try to snatch the sock as toy, but he’s curious about it. When Jake does Leave It on the second command, he looks up at me in puzzled innocence, as though he’s wounded by my tone of voice.
In a few days, from one house away, he leads me home. In a week, from two houses away, he leads me home. When the month is out, I can give him the Home command as we round any block leading to the house, and he’ll take me there, long lead drooping and scraping across the sidewalk, a loose connection between us so that I can be certain I’m not cuing him with tugs even I don’t recognize. For a time we work into the sun so that my shadow is thrown behind me—I want to make sure I’m not even cuing him by some lean of body he can see, though I’m not sure he recognizes what a shadow is.
We have several good Home finds from a block away, once even approaching from a side of the block we had not taken outbound, and I think it’s time to let Jake Piper advance a little more. We take a long, free-to-be-dog walk into town, and halfway back I put on his service vest. He stands still for the putting-on-of-uniform, slides into it easily, and I see the change of demeanor I see in Puzzle when the vest goes on, as if he understands which rules apply.
“Take me home, Jake,” I say. We are about three blocks away. It’s a big step up from the block he had been doing, but we’re on the very road we took outbound, and we are walking into the wind. With any luck, it’s blowing straight over the house and into our faces. With any luck, Jake has so much of our outbound scent and home’s scent that the path back glows.
Jake perks at the command and starts off with great energy. Too much energy. For a moment I have to rush to keep the lead slack between us. If we weren’t near traffic, I’d drop the lead entirely to see which route he’d take. Jake’s head is lifted. The spotted left ear is standing almost straight up. The right ear twists like a corn chip. Everything about him looks happy, and with a terrier’s easy, distinctive trot, he moves confidently in the right direction. His pace is steady: Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home. A couple of times he turns around to shoot me a glance. It’s a check-in but so confident and prideful that it reads less like How am I doing? and more like I am so on this. Who’s the good Jakey?
He’s the good Jakey, I think, and I am just about to share his overconfidence when suddenly he shivers all over, the nose drops, and the tail goes from a sway to a wag. This is the very kind of animation we may see in search dogs the moment they catch human scent. There is nothing about the Home command that should torque Jake up in this way; I’m thinking this even as he moves from the trot to a scramble and, nose down, begins to pull me along the sidewalk—right-direction-right-direction-yes-it’s-the-way-we-came—and then suddenly goes across the street on a diagonal, onto the opposite sidewalk, and into a row of bushes. Jake is crittering. He has chosen a place where possums like to sleep off the day, and I have no doubt he’s trailing one now. He is on it. He thrusts into the green so deeply that all I can see is his madly waving tail. By this time, I’ve abandoned my role as observer of the process and am pulling him into me, heaving hand over hand down the long lead. We meet somewhere in the middle of the thicket, and as a huddle of little possums scatter in the underbrush, Jake sits and turns to look at me. His expression isn’t guilty. He beams as though he thinks he’s done the job.
“Jake, come out of here,” I say, leading him out, giving an embarrassed little wave to an elderly man grinning from a neighboring porch.
No treat. Sit for Jake. Deep breath. Let’s try this again.
“Jake, take me home.” Jake stands and looks pointedly at the hedge, then back to me.
“No, Jake. Take me home.”
His expression mystified, as though he can’t imagine why a hedge full of baby possums is not the thing I want, Jake begins again. We move away from the hedge in a cloud of Leave Its; Jake crabs sideways, looking back toward possum land as long as he possibly can. Somehow, though, when we hit the sidewalk, he seems to shake off the hedge’s allure. He is service dog in training again, and I am hopeful that this time he’s got it. He’s slowed from a trot to a walk, a better pace for a human handler behind him, and I’m glad to see he made that choice. (I hope he made it out of consideration for his partner, but he may have made it because we’re now upwind of possum.) The lead between us is slack.
Two blocks from home. A block and a half from home, and we’re still moving in the right direction, at a partner-sensible pace. A car passes, honks lightly, its driver smiling at the two of us. I smile back, because really, we are on it this time, and here we are, woman and dog, the picture of obedience and collaboration. A nice walk now; Jake-goes-home-now-Jake-goes-home-now. No pull, no tension on the lead, still moving in the right direction.
A block from home, Jake’s head pops up with interest, and for a moment I fear he’s on another possum. But no— though Jake has snagged some happy scent on the wind, he doesn’t break stride for it. Instead, he moves steadily forward and with great confidence, leading us down the last block, up a low set of steps, and to the front gate. He sits and grins at me, eyeing the treat bag.
This was right on so many levels. Right direction, right pace, no startle at the car honk, a lead up the steps, to the gate, and the happy Here we are! Sit. The only problem: We’re at the wrong house. Not only the wrong house, but one of the most splendid historic properties in our little town. A beautiful full-blown Victorian mansion with turrets and wraparound porches, its lovely landscaping bounded by a wrought-iron fence.
To Jake’s credit, we passed this house outbound, and today it’s immediately downwind of our own. I can see home from where we stand. So could Jake if he were looking for it, but at the moment he’s happy with the house he’s found for us. Holding his Sit, he perks every time I look at him. This is home, isn’t it? I give him credit for having good taste, if not accuracy. He seems pretty sure we should just head on through the gate.
Excerpted from The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of “Unadoptables” Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing by Susannah Charleson. Copyright © 2013 by Susannah Charleson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Examination of the enduring bonds.
You didn’t know how much you cared. Hell, she was only a dog. Nothing special. A Heinzey-57 varieties. Just a mutt.
But she …
Six months after your dog died, you still can’t talk about her. You turn your face away, embarrassed and perhaps ashamed of your tears.
Only a dog.
On one particularly bleak morning, Anne told me, “I wake up and Zippy’s gone and I wish I was dead too.”
“Only a dog”: that stupid, heartless diminutive comes straight from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.
Why did the ancient Semites seek to disrupt the profound, ancient connection between man and dogs?
In legends of other native peoples, the dog is a benign and helpful creature; sometimes he’s God’s companion, sometimes the guardian spirit of the underworld. Maria Leach’s wonderful God Had a Dog lists 70 native gods who had or used a dog.
Early nomadic Semitic peoples needed dogs for hunting, watchdogs, war and to defend their all-important flocks. The Midrash counts Abraham’s sheep-guarding dogs as part of his wealth.
But Semitic writers never once praise the dog’s virtues. The dog’s fidelity and courage go unremarked. He is absent from the 23rd Psalm, and at Christ’s nativity, when those terrifying angels brighten the night sky, the shepherd’s dogs don’t bark.
I tuned into an Evangelical radio broadcast whose preacher instructed children, “Sure, you like old Spot and you must be kind to him, but remember, children, you have a soul and old Spot doesn’t.”
This doctrine troubles some devout Christians who hope to see their dog in an afterlife and, scripture to the contrary, presume they will. Some trust that since theirs is a loving God, He will slip their pets past Saint Peter. More consistent Christians assume they will be so busy worshipping God in the afterlife that they won’t miss their dogs—that their love for Spot is merely an earthly love, no more important than their affection for their Chevy Impala.
Early Semites worshiped gods of fertility and gods of war: Dagon and Hadad, and Baal, “the rider on the clouds.” Often cruel, these gods required propitiation, but you could do business with them.
These capricious, somewhat manipulable gods might make the barren wife fertile, bring rain, or cause an enemy’s spear to miss its mark, but they never shared with human worshippers their god-attributes, neither their power nor their all knowingness nor their ability to live forever.
Aspiring to a god’s powers was a bad idea; see Icarus.
Belly full, protected by the watchful dog lying beside him, man began to dream of the impossible. We can trace the painfully slow, irresistible progress of this dream through the years of the Old Testament’s creation.
Although they hedged their bets with Dagon, Baal and the occasional golden calf, some Semites began to dream of a single god. One can read the Pentateuch as the history of how Jews became monotheists. They swapped out a host of familiar, approachable gods for one remote, powerful, all knowing, loving but extremely cranky Deity.
Why did God love a species that often denied Him, defied Him and sometimes ranked Him second after that golden calf?
God loved weak, sinful, forgetful, rebellious man because, “And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth …” (Genesis 1:26).
“After our likeness”—that brilliant link made monotheism possible. Just as there is one man, so there is one God. The worshipper is commanded to become “like” God (imitatio Dei). And surely, if we are “like” God, can’t we share some of his attributes, even His immortality?
Emphatically, God did not make dog in His own image. Monotheism asserted an extreme human singularity that has engaged philosophers ever since: “Man, the featherless biped.” “Man, the rational animal.” “Homo faber.” “Man the animal that makes promises.” Our determination to distance ourselves from other animals—indeed, from nature itself—has powered eco-catastrophes that endanger all life on Earth.
When God made man in his own image and gave him dominion over all other creatures, he simultaneously banished the dog from his special place at man’s side.
The betrayal of dog by man—the “Lost Dog” story— is one of our oldest, most poignant tales. When Odysseus returns home after years of wandering, no creature recognizes him except his dying dog. “Infested with ticks, half dead from neglect, here lay the hound, old Argos. But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by, he thumped his tail, muzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master.”
Gelert was the favored hound of the 13th-century Welsh prince, Llewellyn ab Joweth . One day, Prince Llewellyn noticed that Gelert had left the hunt. When the prince got home, the bloody Gelert greeted his master exuberantly, but the prince’s infant son wasn’t in his crib, and blood splattered the walls. The enraged prince promptly slew Gelert. Moments later, he discovered his unharmed son, next to the corpse of the wolf Gelert had killed protecting the child.
There are at least 30 recorded versions of the Gelert story, the earliest before the Christian Era.
“Lost Dog” is paradigmatic; retold so many times in modern literature, it seems to be the only dog story we need to tell. White Fang, Lassie Come Home, The Incredible Journey, The Plague Dogs, my own Nop’s Trials: all stories of sundering and loss.
In Raymond Carver’s short story, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” an overwhelmed husband abandons the family dog beside the road: “He saw his whole life a ruin from here on. If he lived another fifty years—hardly likely—he felt he’d never get over it, abandoning the dog … A man who would get rid of a little dog wasn’t worth a damn. That kind of man would do anything, would stop at nothing.”
We rewrite and reread this predictable, profoundly satisfying story, although in each recounting, we humans are cruel betrayers and dogs are our moral superiors.
The story satisfies because it is true. Yes, we betrayed the dog.
Our old partner, the animal who ensured our survival, who slipped into our genetic code like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, became “only” a dog, no more privileged than hogs or sheep. We needed to spurn him because the dog threatened the same dreams his watchfulness made possible.
Freed by dog to dream of God, freed to yearn for God’s attributes, to escape the tragedy of human mortality, man gave up his dog for the greatest vision man has ever had.
Yet the dog remains eager—pathetically eager—to renew that 100,000-year-old genetic partnership from which he has been forever banished: Lost Dog.
Man didn’t abandon his dog cheaply. He didn’t sell him for a mere 30 pieces of silver. Man asked the greatest reward any creature ever asked of his god: immortality.
We lost our dog to live forever.
Excerpted from Mr. & Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies, forthcoming from University Press of Virginia (March 2013). Used with permission.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Bark Classic Favorite
I spent the whole of August of that year playing with a splendid little dog that appeared one day on the kitchen floor, awkward and squeaking, still smelling of milk and infancy, with a round, still unformed, and trembling head, paws like a mole’s, spreading to the sides, and the most delicate, silky-soft coat.
From the moment I first saw it, that crumb of life won the whole enthusiasm and admiration of which I was capable.
From what heavens had that favorite of the gods descended, to become closer to my heart than all the most beautiful toys? To think that an old, completely uninteresting charwoman could have had the wonderful idea to bring from her home in the suburbs—at a very early, transcendental hour—such a lovely dog to our kitchen!
Ah! One had still been absent—alas—not yet brought back from the dark bosom of sleep, when that happiness had been fulfilled and was waiting for us, lying awkwardly on the cool floor of the kitchen, unappreciated by Adela and the other members of the household. Why had I not been wakened earlier? The saucer of milk on the floor bore witness to Adela’s maternal instincts, bore witness, too, unfortunately, to moments lost to me forever from the joys of parenthood.
But before me, all the future lay open. What a prospect of new experiences, experiments, and discoveries! The most essential secret of life, reduced to this simple, handy, toylike form was revealed here to my insatiable curiosity. It was overwhelming interesting to have as one’s own that scrap of life, that particle of the eternal mystery in a new and amusing shape, which by its very strangeness, by the unexpected transposition of the spark of life, present in us human beings, into a different, animal form, awoke in me an infinite curiosity.
Animals! the object of insatiable interest, examples of the riddle of life, created, as it were, to reveal the human being to man himself, displaying his richness and complexity in a thousand kaleidoscopic possibilities, each of them brought to the some curious end, to some characteristic exuberance. Still unburdened by the complications of eccentric interests which spoil relationships between people, my heart was filled with sympathy for that manifestation of the eternity of life, with a loving tender curiosity that was identical with self-revelation.
The dog was warm and as a soft as velvet and had a small quick heartbeat. He had two petal-soft ears, opaque blue eyes, a pink mouth into which one could put one’s finger with impunity, delicate and innocent paws with enchanting pink warts on the outside, over the foretoes. He crept with these paws right into a bowl of milk, greedy and impatient, lapping it up with his pale red tongue. When he had had enough he would sadly lift his small muzzle, with drops of milk hanging from it, and retreat clumsily from the milky bath.
He walked with an awkward oblique roll in an undecided direction, along a shaky and uncertain line. His usual mood was one of indefinite basic sadness. He had the dejected helplessness of an orphan—an inability to fill the emptiness of life between the sensational events of meals. This was reflected in the aimlessness of his movements, in his irrational fits of melancholia, his sad whimpering, and his inability to settle down in any one place. Even in the depths of sleep, in which he had to satisfy his need for protection and love by curling himself up into a trembling ball, he could not rid himself of the feeling of loneliness and homelessness. Oh, how a young and meager life, brought forth from a familiar darkness, from the homely warmth of a mother’s womb into a large, foreign, bright world, shrinks and retreats and recoils from accepting the undertaking—and with what aversion and disappointment!
But slowly, little Nimrod (for that was the proud and martial name we gave him) began to like life better. His exclusive preoccupation with longing for a return to the maternal womb gave way before the charms of plurality.
The world began to set traps for him: the unknown and tantalizing taste of various foods, the square patch of morning sunlight on the floor in which it was so pleasant to rest, the movements of his own limbs, his own paws, his tail roguishly inviting him to play, the fondling of human hands which induced a certain playfulness, the gaiety that filled him with a need for completely new, violent, and risky movements—all this tricked and encouraged him to the acceptance of the experiment of life and to submission to it.
One more thing: Nimrod began to understand that what he was experiencing was, in spite of its appearance of novelty, something which had existed before—many time before. His body began to recognize situations, impressions, and objects. In reality, none of these astonished him very much. Faced with new circumstances, he would dip into the fount of his memory, the deep-seated memory of the body, would search blindly and feverishly, and often find ready-made within himself a suitable reaction: the wisdom of generations, deposited in his plasma, in his nerves. He found actions and decisions of which he had not been aware but which had been lying in wait, ready to emerge.
The backdrop of his young life, the kitchen with its buckets and cloths full of complicated and intriguing smells, the clacking of Adela’s slippers and her noisy bustle, ceased to frighten him. He got used to considering it his domain, began to feel at home in it and to develop vague feeling of belonging to it, almost of patriotism.
Unless of course there was a sudden cataclysm in the shape of floor scrubbing—an abolition of the laws of nature—the splashing of warm lye, flooding all the furniture and the loud scraping of Adela’s brushes.
But the danger passed; the brush, now calm and immobile, returned to its corner, the floor smelled sweetly of damp wood. Nimrod, restored again to his normal rights and the freedom of his own territory, would have a sudden urge to grab an old rug between his teeth and to tear at it with all his strength, pulling it to the left and to the right. The pacification of the elements filled him with indescribable joy.
Suddenly he stopped still: in front of him, some three puppy steps away, there appeared a black monster, a scarecrow moving quickly on the rods of many entangled legs. Deeply shaken, Nimrod’s eyes followed the course of the shiny insect, observing tensely the flat, apparently headless torso, carried with uncanny speed by the spidery legs.
Something stirred in him at that sight, a feeling which he could not yet understand, a mixture of anger and fear, rather pleasurable and combined with a shiver of strength, of self-assertion, of aggression.
And suddenly he dropped onto his forepaws and uttered a sound unfamiliar to him, a strange noise, completely different from his usual whimpering. He uttered it once then again and again, in a thin faltering descant.
But in vain did he apostrophize the insect in this new language, born of sudden inspiration as a cockroach’s understanding is not equal to such a tirade: the insect continued on its journey to a corner of the room, with movements sanctified by an ageless ritual of the cockroach world.
The feeling of loathing had as yet no permanence or strength in the dog’s soul. The newly awakened joy of life transformed every sensation into a great joke, into gaiety. Nimrod kept on barking, but the tone of it had changed imperceptibly, had become a parody of what it had been—an attempt to express the incredible wonder of that capital enterprise, life, so full of unexpected encounters, pleasures, and thrills.
Bruno Schulz was one of the leading Polish Jewish authors of the 20th century, although he only wrote two collections of stories during his lifetime. He was born in 1892 in the town of Drohobycz in what is now the Ukraine (but was, at one time part of Austria and then Poland). The town of Drohobycz is currently hosting an art and literature festival to honor him. He has been acclaimed as one of the greatest stylist in Polish literature.
Schulz, who was also a graphic artist was residing in that town during WWII, under the “protection” of a S.S. officer, Felix Landau, in exchange for painting a mural on the walls of his villa. But Schulz was slain in 1942, shot as he was walking down the street by a Nazi commander who was said to kill him in retaliation toward Landau. Horribly the killer had said,” You killed my Jew—I killed yours.”
His first book, The Street of Crocodiles, was published in 1934 and he was hailed as one of the major avant-garde writer and visual artist in that era. Contemporary writers, David Grossman, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Saffron Foer, have all paid homage to him. In the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Schulz “wrote sometimes like Kafka, sometimes like Proust, and at times succeeded in reaching the depths that neither of them reached.”
We became acquainted with Schulz’s work through a recommendation from a reader. We were honored to be able to publish “Nimrod,” a story from his first book, in 2004. It remains one of our lit favorites. As David Grossman said about his discovery of Schulz’s writing that when he first read him “Even today it is hard for me to describe the jolt that ran through me.” We feel the same, and hopefully you agree that this story merits a place in the dog literature canon.
Wellness: Health Care
Healing maladies holistically.
In my office, an aging golden retriever named jasper sits by my fax machine and waits for his latest ultrasound report. But I already know the results from a gentle wag of his tail and his rejuvenated appetite: the cancer is in remission. Unlike an oncologist, I don’t treat cancer. I focus instead on healing the patient’s failing immune system; Jasper’s gave rise to two large liver tumors. I worried that Jasper would succumb to one of his bleed-outs, or pass away after a severe reaction to a pain patch. But in each instance, a force rallied inside him, a spirit that science cannot yet quantify, and he beat the odds.
People generally assume that there is just one acceptable way to treat cancer — with conventional medicine, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Many oncologists today advocate not using any holistic medicine while a pet is under their care. They believe that herbal supplements and antioxidants are not well characterized and can have unforeseen and negative interactions with chemotherapy drugs. They also typically state that special diets are not necessary. While their approach may successfully treat some types of cancer, the risks can often outweigh the benefits, especially in older, compromised animals.
Contrary to their opinions, I believe that dietary therapy is critical in the treatment of cancer. For years, I used the energetics of food to treat many forms of disease. If a disease caused heat or inflammation, I’d prescribe organic, homemade, finely ground diets including cold-water fish, pork and green leafy vegetables to cool the inflammation. I might also prescribe raw diets, which are cooling to the body. On the other hand, if a patient had a cold imbalance, his ears cool to the touch, I might prescribe cooked lamb or chicken, and warming vegetables like steamed rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and a tiny piece of fresh ginger. For either constitution, the introduction of live-plant antioxidants, vitamins and minerals would be beneficial, especially since these ingredients are often unavailable in commercial diets. If herbs and homemade diets could help Jasper, I thought, why not try them?
To my surprise and relief, Jasper survived the week on this regimen. Now, according to [his person], Wendy, he was having a few good days, time seemingly stolen back from his cancer, giving us a remote hope that we had suspended a downward spiral. I saw him for his second appointment on a sunny Monday afternoon. As he entered my office, rather than dragging his back toes, he walked in fairly normally, lifted his head occasionally and proceeded to sniff all four corners of the room. Rather than the deep brick red it had been the week before, his tongue color was now lavender pink, suggesting that his overall circulation and body temperature had improved.
Even with these signs of improvement, though, Jasper was still extremely underweight and very weak. His eyes remained dull, and the nominal amount of weight he had gained was a result of accumulating abdominal fluid produced by his leaking tumors.
Attempting to remove the fluid presented multiple problems and would only give him short-term relief. Again, we were left with few possible medical treatments, which reminded me of climbing a steep slope above the tree line and grabbing small twigs only to have them rip out of the ground; so few medical options, so few big trees left to hold on to.
“I hope he improves a little more this week,” Wendy said, her eyes puffy and tired. “We enrolled him in a nosework class when we learned he had cancer.”
She read my puzzled look. “After the diagnosis, we enrolled Jasper in a training program for nosework. We hoped it might help him stay mentally and physically stimulated.” The idea was to encourage and develop a dog’s natural scenting abilities and innate desire to hunt a target odor. In the process, the dogs have fun, building confidence and focus while burning mental and physical energy. It was not normally the place you’d find a dog with such a serious health condition.
But Jasper had spent his life as a natural seeker. The Millers often took Jasper with them on kayak trips. When they paddled to shore, the dog would bound from his bucket seat onto the beach. Immediately, he’d begin to dig, pawing so aggressively at the sand that it flew out behind him. After an hour, he would proudly lie in the middle of a 20-foot-long trench, happily gnawing on a stick to celebrate his masterpiece of excavation.
All of my medical training told me that Jasper should be inside a bubble, isolated from infectious disease and confined to the house to prevent the rupture of his tumors. Sick dogs, I had learned, should be quietly resting at home. But then, rules were meant to be broken. I remember reading Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human. She highlighted the importance of seeking: looking forward to an activity or object. When an animal’s attention is in a playful, seeking mode, he or she cannot simultaneously feel fear. Seeking is a necessary emotion that is often [missing] in many animals’ lives, especially after a grave diagnosis. Jasper’s nosework class would provide him with a new form of seeking, and instead of obsessing over his tumors, the Millers could let his new focus alleviate their own fear as well. I imagined Jasper barking and wagging his tail when he picked up the scent of birch oil in a little metal box hidden in the backyard. Jasper’s seeking behavior would be just as important to his overall health as any herbal therapy. When I was young, I unknowingly implemented this idea of seeking with my own dog, Julietta. Just after we adopted her from a litter of sick puppies at the shelter, she broke with bloody diarrhea. As we waited for the veterinarian, I held her in my lap, upside down in a blue blanket as though she were a doll.
I looked around the waiting room and noticed other people staring off into space: a slumping old man, a young woman in plaid jeans and a wool scarf, a couple holding a baby carrier on one side and a Beagle on the other. Their pets were quietly protesting from within carriers or crouching fearfully under chairs. Julietta and I looked at one another. She was weak, and her eyes gazed up at me for a clue to her destiny. Three black eyebrow whiskers followed my every move. Owing to my mother’s amazing ability to work despite almost any disturbance, she sat next to us reading and correcting students’ final exams, making big swirls with her red pen.
Thinking back to that veterinary clinic, I can still remember the exam room, the perky technicians and the doctor’s white lab coat and grim face as he reported Julietta’s poor prognosis. Parvovirus had struck her small, malformed, Basset-like body, and her only beautiful feature, the darkened liner around her brown eyes, now drooped as she hung her head on the steel exam table. “The smell,” the veterinarian said, “is unmistakable.” His eyes shifted to the clock when a cat howled in a back room.
My mother was speechless at the diagnosis, not because she loved the puppy even an eighth as much as I did, but because we were facing the death of an immediate family member for the first time, and were completely unprepared for it. The veterinarian suggested putting Julietta to sleep, no doubt because he correctly assumed that we could not afford hospitalization, and even if we could, her future looked bleak.
It was then that my 12-week-old puppy looked up at me pleadingly, giving a last tiny wag of her tail. My mother looked up from her pile of ungraded exams and silently nodded her tacit semi-approval. Even she noticed the puppy’s hint of hope. Right or wrong, this decision would be left to me, even though I may have been too young to make it. “Doctor,” I said with a small voice and a lump in my throat, “I’d like to try to save her at home.”
The veterinarian looked at my mother’s face for a more sensible decision, but when none came, he said, “Okay, young lady, you’ve got to work hard at this, and even then, she might not make it.”
Although 30 years later, Julietta’s veterinarian might have been sued for giving so many pills to a nine-yearold, back then, he thought nothing of handing me the plastic prescription bottles and showing me how to pinch the puppy’s skin to check for dehydration. With no fanfare, I tucked Julietta back under her towel, and carried her out to our dented blue car while my mother paid the bill. I didn’t know it then, but she had cashed in some family heirlooms and old coins to pay for this unforeseen expense.
Before and after school, I treated the small puppy. Sometimes I felt the hopelessness in it, while other times my determination took over. Every day I’d race home to find her waiting for me. I’d clean up the bloody diarrhea on the newspaper-lined kitchen floor that we walled off especially for her. Then I’d give her canned food and water through a large syringe as her pale tongue lapped it up. Afterward, I’d gently pry open her mouth to slide a huge blue pill as far down her throat as possible. After a few days of no improvement and minimal appetite, she hung her head as though the force of gravity weighed heavier on her than on anyone else. I asked my mother to let Julietta sleep with me, imagining that if I could hold her cold body close to me, I’d be able to warm her up. Naturally, with the putrid nature of Julietta’s stools, Mom resisted my request for a while, but I explained that there was a medical point to it.
Even with medication and round-the-clock nursing care, Julietta was still unwilling to eat on her own. I decided to try a new technique to stimulate her appetite, hiding small pieces of chicken in various places throughout my room. At first, she appeared uninterested, but gradually, her nose began twitching with the allure of appetizing scents lurking under the covers, behind the bed and in an old pair of dress shoes. Each day, I added larger pieces to our new seeking game. And over the next few days, Julietta’s appetite slowly returned. Within a month, she had rounded a corner, gradually returning to her normal, playful self.
I thought of Julietta’s remarkable recovery from parvovirus as I sat contemplating Jasper’s precarious health. “Wendy, maybe you’re onto something with this nosework,” I said. “But, if possible, try to keep Jasper from jumping around too much.” I worried that, among other concerns, any heavy exertion could cause the tumors to bleed. Wendy promised that all his initial training would be done on flat terrain. I continued, “Just in case, let’s add another Chinese patent herb, yunnan paiyao, to his herbal regime. It aids in blood clotting and might help keep his tumors from bleeding.”
As I inserted acupuncture needles into important liver-strengthening points, Wendy shared her trick of combining all Jasper’s powdered herbs and vitamins in a turkey baster and then briskly rubbing him down with a towel to get him excited about taking the gruel. “If I use the towel to fluff up and down his back, he gets so excited and happy, he barely realizes he’s taking any medicine at all!”
With the needles in place, I sat back and watched him relax into his acupuncture treatment. I asked myself what else I could do to strengthen his immune system. The answer to my question was an herb first introduced to me one summer in the Cascade Mountains by my herbal teacher, Madsu, a thin, gray-haired man reminiscent of an elf. With a wildcrafter’s permit — a guarantee that no plant would be over-harvested — Madsu had silently walked through the forest carrying a heavy burlap sack slung over his left shoulder. As I followed him, I had to look up occasionally to be sure I had not veered off his path, sucked accidentally into a patch of salal.
We climbed over huge logs covered with green sheets of elk moss and usnea lichen. Dirt built up and caked onto our knees as we knelt in front of some rattlesnake plantain, investigating its vibrant white center vein. The air was damp and cold. Droplets fell when I exhaled, and each breath made me feel more alive.
Madsu stopped abruptly to admire and bless his favorite plant, ocean spray, a large bush also known as ironwood because bows and arrows were made from its sturdy pith. I watched him place sacred red willow bark beside its base. To him, the bush represented the survival of his people, and indeed, it was a shrub worthy of notice. With a collection of small, energetic white flowers extending proudly into the sky, it resembled the spray of the sea crashing against a rocky shoreline. Each of its leaves was decorated with fine ridges in circular fan-like patterns, the leaf margin as wavy as water, reminding me of the thrill of a storm at sea.
Pieces of cedar crumbled into our hair as we ducked under a large rotten stump to find turkey-tail mushrooms, a shelved cluster of woody fantails, brown- and orange-tinted with a white underbelly. When one hikes with a mushroom expert and herbalist, every rotten log becomes a subject worthy of special treatment, full of hidden clues. Unlike plants, mushrooms are only present for a few days, sometimes only a few hours, so you have to leave your worries, your lists and your disagreements with others behind and focus on that bounty of mushrooms. Known as an immune modulator, turkey tail is one of many medicinal mushrooms that help the immune system recognize and kill cancer cells.
Madsu sought wild herbs by day and made medicine by night. We spent hours gathering reishi and turkey tail, chiseling at the mushrooms and then slinging the wood-like fungus into our burlap sacks. Our other sacks contained sheets of f luffy, light green usnea rolled on long sticks like cotton candy, and chunks of precious red root, an herb whose potency increases as its environment becomes more hostile. When we returned to our camp on a hillside outside Twisp, the moon gave us just enough light to layer some of our herbs onto thin racks and place them into a large dryer. Then we began crushing the mushrooms, tincturing them immediately and then pouring the liquid into large amber bottles to retain their medicinal potency.
Madsu learned how to gather medicine and process it from his mother, who traced her native roots to a Spokane woman named Teshwintichina. From her, he also learned how to make cakes from camas, bitterroot and black tree lichen. [The] camas bulb needed to be baked long enough to release the sweet inulin; an hour too early and it would still be bitter; an hour too late and it would turn to mush. The black lichen was packed into cakes when it was still a warm, sticky substance that could be molded easily. His family would cook the camas on warm summer nights when song and fire could pass the hours. They could smell when their camas had cooked long enough to convert the inulin. They could smell when [the] medicine was ready.
To me, many of Madsu’s herbal and food preparation practices seemed witch-like, entrenched in fire-born ritual. But I later discovered that some of the plants’ active ingredients, so important for immune modulation, disappeared quickly without immediate preparation. They were also more bioactive in the beginning of the autumn when the leaves of the alder tree start to turn gold. The ability to know when to harvest one plant based on the life cycle of another made sense when one lived in community with the plants, truly understanding their annual rhythms.
Jasper understood annual rhythms, too. In the summer, he hunted for moles in the fields. As fall approached, he sniffed out and ate blackberries. As Christmas approached, he dutifully protected the house, bravely fending off evil deliverytruck drivers.
Back at the clinic, I left Wendy and Jasper in the exam room while I reached up in my herbal pharmacy for a bottle of turkey tail and reishi made by Madsu that September night five years prior. I thought of how the field we’d chosen to make medicines smelled of sweet tarragon after a moist evening, and how Madsu blessed the medicine, completely present with his full attention on healing. The stars had beamed over our makeshift laboratory on a deeply nourishing night, and the nearly full moon floated overhead as we worked on counters of cut logs, swirling jars of herbal menstruum.
“Let’s start him on this mushroom blend,” I suggested, handing Wendy an amber bottle, just as herbalists have done for generations. As they got up to leave at the end of the appointment, I saw the tip of Jasper’s dry, cracked nose sniff at a liver treat I had cradled in my palm. At that point, I could see a trace of his inner life force, not through a brightness in his eyes, but through a twitch of his nose.
Culture: Stories & Lit
From a new novel with a dog-rich storyline
When they got home, Everett watched Polly disappear into the bedroom to watch TV.He made himself a martini and sat down in the living room with the paper.His was a lonely life, he realized, even with a nubile girlfriend. Polly greeted him and chatted with him and kissed him and made love to him with youthful energy and cheer, but it was as if she did those things from across a great divide. The dog had followed him now and pushed his face between Everett and the newspaper, laying his muzzle comfortably on Everett’s leg. Everett was too sad to scold the dog at that moment. He didn’t stir. The dog didn’t stir. A gentle quiet descended. Everett realized he liked the feeling of the dog’s head on his leg, the warmth of a living being so close to him, demanding nothing, just there.He patted Howdy with one hand and held the martini glass with another. The dog had such silky ears, such a golden, silky face.He listened to the rhythmic tranquility of the dog’s breathing.
“Howdy,” he said softly.
Howdy looked up, his head cocked, his eyes dark and somehow reassuring.
Everett experienced an unfamiliar sensation.He looked into the dog’s eyes, and he was suddenly, intensely aware of the room around him, of the soft order of his furnishings and his life, of the soft order outside where day was giving way to night, of the TV sounds and the cold wet of the martini glass, of the smudgy feel of newsprint on his fingers, but mostly he was aware of joy —the wild, clattering joy of being alive.
“Howdy,” he whispered. “Howdy.” Howdy thumped his tail against the floor, and the two of them gazed into each other’s eyes, like lovers.
When Howdy jumped on Everett’s bed that night, Polly said, “Off!”
But Howdy, instead of jumping down, turned and looked at Everett, as if for further instructions.
Everett did not know any dog commands. “Just for a little while,” he said, which is what he used to tell Emily, but Howdy seemed to understand him perfectly and stretched out with a comfortable grunt.
“You’ve changed your tune,” Polly said.
“I’m only human,” he said.
A few days later, Polly and her brother George received a telephone call from their mother in California reminding them of the date of her sixtieth birthday and offering them frequent flier miles.
“A summons,” George said when they’d hung up. “Like traffic court.Might as well get it over with.”
“Or we’ll get hit with more fines?”
Polly shrugged. She had some vacation days due. It seemed a shame to waste them on family, but it would be fun to see her high school friends who had stayed in California. Then she had a startling thought.
“The dog!” she said.
George looked stunned.
“I forgot about him,” he said, looking guiltily at the sleeping hulk in the corner.
The problem was resolved in a way neither of them would have predicted. Everett offered to take care of Howdy while they were away. Polly was pleased and felt her importance in having such a devoted boyfriend. On the other hand, she was a little disappointed that Everett didn’t seem at all anxious about her impending absence.
“I’ll only be gone for a few days,” she said, prompting him. But he just nodded and said it wasn’t much time for Howdy and him to get to know each other, but it was a start. Everett, for his part, could hardly believe his luck.Howdy was coming to pad around his empty apartment. Howdy’s big plumed tail would swish across his coffee table. Howdy would sprawl on his bed, his couch, his carpet.He immediately began straightening pictures on the wall and plumping cushions, as if Howdy were a fastidious houseguest.
George didn’t like the idea of leaving the dog with Everett, but he saw no other possibilities. He had dropped hints to Jamie, but Jamie had responded with studied incomprehension. So on Friday afternoon, he gathered up Howdy’s toys and food. Polly was meeting him at the airport and he was to take the dog up to Everett.
Everett had left work early in order to be home when the transfer was made, and he opened the door when George rang, squatted down, and offered his face for Howdy’s greeting.George watched with grudging approval.
“Here’s his food,” he said, handing Everett a shopping bag with dry food and several cans.
Everett looked in the shopping bag, which also contained Howdy’s toys, a box of treats, and a detailed list of his schedule of walking and eating. Then Everett produced his own shopping bag and its contents: a new blue rubber ball, a squeaky plush hedgehog, and a ceramic dog dish with soft green stripes.
“Jonathan Adler,” he said, handing the dish to George. George looked puzzled.
“He designed it,” Everett said.“He’s a designer.”
George handed the bowl back to Everett.
“You can call to check up on Howdy,” Everett said. “Do you want my cell phone number, too?”
This was the friendliest Everett had ever been to George. “Howdy,”Everett was saying softly.“Howdy,Howdy,Howdy.” He patted his chest and Howdy immediately put his front paws there. The two of them stood gazing into each other’s eyes. George couldn’t help but smile.
Everett saw the smile and smiled back. George felt suddenly happy, as if the sun had come out. Oh, he said to himself. I get it. This is what happened to Polly. The smile.
“It’s so nice of you to take the dog,” he said.He almost meant it. He watched Howdy wagging his tail, and he had a sudden realization.He looked at Howdy, now lying on his back, then at Everett, now scratching the dog’s belly, and he thought, I am jealous of my sister’s boyfriend. And not even because Everett was his sister’s boyfriend, but because his sister’s boyfriend was taking care of his sister’s dog.
Oh, well, he thought, as he left the happy couple. I’m only human.
Everett clipped on Howdy’s leash a few minutes later and took the dog for a celebratory promenade up the block. At the real-estate agency around the corner on Columbus he stopped as he often did to examine the placards displaying tempting photographs of loftlike gems and spacious sun-filled one-of-akind marvels. But he found he was less intrigued than usual and led Howdy over to a fluffy white dog, introduced by her owner as Lola, and he peacefully watched the two dogs in their amiable examination of each other’s genitals.
Culture: Stories & Lit
My hound dog Carolina is sitting in the car, and I’m in the drugstore standing in an aisle I haven’t been down for fifteen years. Carolina is in heat. Such an archaic concept, heat. I’m looking for something to slip into the mesh pocket of a red Speedo-like contraption I’ve just bought for her. Who knew they made such things for dogs? I recall the flimsy little garter belts we girls got with our first box of sanitary napkins and the accompanying pamphlet regarding the human reproductive cycle. Light years ago. I pick an item that comes wrapped in pink and says mini and then I hobble over to Aisle 4b, Pain Relievers, where I’m more at home. My back hurts. I grab aspirin, pay for everything and head for the car.
Carolina’s nose is smeared against the window. Good dog, I say, good dog, and manage to get myself sitting down without screaming and I pat her big head and nuzzle her neck, and her tail thwacks against the passenger seat. Carolina is halfway through her first treatment for heartworm and going into heat seems grossly unfair. “Jesus, yet more trouble,” as some martyr said when the executioner reached in to yank out his intestines. (I can’t remember which saint this was, but my mother loved to quote him.) Before I start the car I line up the arrows, take off the cap, stab a pen through the foil seal and gobble down three aspirin.
This is my first experience with a dog in heat but the back pain arrived thirty years ago when I bent to pick a canned peach off the kitchen floor and couldn’t straighten up. My new husband seemed familiar with the problem. “My god, what is this called?” I cried as he tried to help. “It’s called my back is killing me,” he said. This version of my back is killing me comes from wearing a pair of stylish new red shoes that pinch my left foot and make me walk lopsided. I don’t know why I keep putting them on except they show off my ankles. At age sixty-three, ankles are my best feature unless you count cake.
When I get home I discover it’s nearly impossible to put this thing on my dog. There is a place for her tail and Velcro fastenings that go over her haunches but try sticking a dog’s long tail through the hole of a small slippery garment while the dog turns around and around in circles. It takes fifteen minutes and when I succeed, Carolina turns her baleful eyes on me and I want to apologize. She is a dog dressed like a monkey.
The next morning I can barely walk. My friend Claudette comes to the rescue. She puts Carolina on a leash lest a pack of hormone addled canines show up in my yard, and later she drives me to her acupuncturist. I have never been to an acupuncturist but I’m ready for help here. The process is very interesting, all those needles tingling in my feet and legs and hands, and so relaxing that I would probably doze off were it not for the needle stuck right under my nose. I just can’t stop thinking about that one. Nevertheless I do feel better until I hit the dairy case at the Hurley Ridge Market and reach for half a gallon of milk. On the way back through town we drive past the half-dressed youth of Woodstock lying on the village green. They are a beautiful sight, but what with my bad back and good memory I am glad not to be one of them. They have far too much future. Sometimes it is a relief to be over the hill.
Meanwhile, my fat Beagle Harry has found himself capable of leaping straight up into the air like Rudolph Nureyev. If Carolina doesn’t notice, and she doesn’t, he does it again. He is no longer capable of reproducing, but that doesn’t dampen his spirit. Rosie too is affected by whatever hormones are flying. She engages in much vigorous grooming, attending obsessively to the nooks and crannies of both Harry and Carolina. She would have made an excellent mother. Now and then Carolina rouses herself long enough to emit a howl. Everybody’s getting hot around here except me. I am just beginning to wonder where all the would-be suitors are when a big white dog materializes in the driveway. Ha! Carolina’s first admirer.
Harry and Rosie take up their positions on the back porch barking their heads off and I call my sister and tell her proudly we’ve got an intact Huskie hanging around who probably never finished grammar school. “Now you know how Mom and Dad felt,” she says. I go outside holding Carolina’s leash in one hand, and a mop in the other. The mop doubles as cane and threat, and I shake it at the ruffian when he comes too close. He looks at Carolina and she looks back. Oh yeah, I remember that look. If this animal were human he’d be wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. He’d be lighting a cigarette. Forget my bad back, my advanced years. If this animal were human and I were in Carolina’s shoes, let’s face it. I’d be all over him like white on rice.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Bark talks with author Paul Griffin
What lessons do you hope teens take away from Stay with Me? In Stay with Me, Céce and Mack fall in love really fast. I hope kids who read the book realize that it’s okay to slow it down, to take a step back, to be at peace with the folks in their lives — family, friends, neighbors, even people they don’t like. I often talk about dogs when I’m working with kids. Dogs not only live in the moment, they embrace it, and I try to get my kids to do the same.
Mack spends a great deal of time working with dogs. What do you see as the benefits of this activity for young adults? A dog’s friendship is sacred. They don’t know how to violate it. They commit, deeply. We learn from themdevoting ourselves to somebody requires absolute trust. Caring for them well makes us feel we’re capable of bringing a little more happiness into the world.
Who is the hero of this book? Everybody is a hero to me, even the poor guy who does something so destructive he can’t help but hate himself afterward. More than anything, resilience inspires me — the veteran who comes home with PTSD, the prisoner trying to forgive himself, the alcoholic trying to be a good mother and the dog who can wag his tail anywhere. They all have one thing in commonthey choose to keep going; they choose to face the everyday. Once in a while, they might even choose to greet the rain with a smile. That’s pretty heroic stuff.
Stay with Me features several dogs named Boo. Was either Boo based on a dog in your life? Both Boos are combinations of several of my dogs. I currently have a zany Pit Bull, Ray (Liotta), who is very like the dog Mack trains in prison. He was a maniac when I pulled him from animal control, but anybody could see he had a heart of gold. I just built on that and today he’s a cupcake.
The first Boo (the one who’s killed) is based mostly on a very sad Foxhound I rescued when he was 12 or so. Al (Pacino) didn’t have a tooth in his head, and he was terrified, but a total sweetheart, so willing to love and be loved. That same Boo also has some of my little street mutt Bobby (DeNiro) in him—he lived to 19, healthy until the day before he died. He was amazingly resilient, like the failed fight dog Mack adopts.
Tell us about your work as a dog trainer. I’ve been dog-crazy for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a firefighter with nine mouths to feed: Grandma and the five kids, and then three in-laws, all under the same roof. Deeps (my grandfather) was great with dogs. Back before we knew backyard breeding was not a good thing, Deeps bred and trained German Shepherds to supplement his income. Those Sheps were amazing. The more time you gave them, the more respect they gave you. Kids don’t always get a lot of respect, so I loved working with the Sheps. I felt great, giving them structure in their lives, and I loved what I got back, their absolute friendship. In my experience, every dog and every person is different, so I’m big on being flexible in the training. I use whatever works. If the dog is food-motivated, I get out the cheese and peanut butter. If not, then that guy’s going to be doing a bit of jogging with me and a ton of walking. I never raise my voice.
What do you see as the benefits of working dogs like Mack did? A dog’s friendship is sacred. They don’t know how to violate it. They commit, deeply. I learn from them: Devoting yourself to somebody requires absolute trust. Dogs are pure, and they make me want to be a better person. I don’t know many people who are unhappy when they’re working with dogs. They’ve taught me self-respect. I’m responsible for them, literally am the difference between life and death for them. Caring for them well makes me feel I’m capable of bringing a little more happiness into the world.
What was the basis for the Old Dogs, New Tricks program? Several summers ago I was doing some workshops with 16- to 18-year-old men at Rikers Island, NYC’s version of Alactraz. I’d heard that the police had a K-9 training facility on the island. I begged one of the staff to let me hang with the Sheps, but she reminded me I was there to work with the kids. There are so many amazing programs with rescue dogs, like Puppies Behind Bars, Patriot Paws and many others.
What was it about Mack that made Anthony want him to connect with his sister? My character Anthony doesn’t waste time focusing on problems—he’s too busy drinking in the hidden beauty in people. He sees the real Mack—the Mack even Mack can’t see. When Anthony watches Mack work with that wild knucklehead of a puppy in the beginning of the book, he sees a young man who wants to make the world a more peaceful place. Anthony knows Céce needs to find her way to peace, and helping her get there is going to be a challenge. On the surface, Céce and Mack seem to be an unlikely pair, but Anthony isn’t concerned with the surface. He digs deep, and in Mack he finds a heart of gold.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Adventures with a Childhood Companion
Every boy should have two things: a dog and a mother willing to let him have one.—Anonymous
I first met Duke at Walter’s house. Walter and I were both 10, friends from suburban Philadelphia’s Penn Wynne Elementary School.
We hung out together after school, hunting for crawfish, salamanders, frogs and snakes in a small creek nearby, then shooting hoops in his driveway. His dad bought one of the first new TVs in the neighborhood.
On the afternoon of October 3, 1951, Walter and I decided to check out the Giants/Dodgers playoff game. The winner would seize the National League championship. We didn’t care who won—we were Phillies fans. We popped two Pepsis and waited for the Dodgers to clinch it.
Up came the Giants’ Bobby Thomson with two outs and two men on base. At 3:58 pm he smacked a homer—“the shot heard round the world,” the papers would call it—and won the pennant for the Giants. Screams. Tears. Bedlam. The announcer at the Polo Grounds went berserk.
Next to the TV, Walter’s new puppy, Butch, caught the fever and howled with the crowd. He then tore around the house, upstairs and downstairs, and in utter abandon, peed on Walter’s dad’s favorite chair.
That did it for Walter’s dad. “That dog’s gone tomorrow,” he bellowed.
Walter begged for a reprieve. But Butch had snapped his dad’s last synapse. It was the pound for Butch the next morning, and probably extermination.
“Can I have him?” I meekly asked.
“Anything, just get him out of here. He’s destroyed half the house.”
Walter and I found a rope to fasten to Butch’s collar. I promised Walter, who was morose, that he could visit any time he wanted. It’s like we’d share Butch. He hugged his dog goodbye and off I set for my house, schoolbooks in one hand, Butch’s rope in the other.
All the neighborhoods between Walter’s home and mine were the same: two-story frame or brick houses on a quarter of an acre with a tree in the yard or maybe two, and a one-car garage. They resembled the toy train villages in my Lionel collection. Not far off was Smith’s Pond, a doomed swamp that would become our dream world.
I escorted Butch through the front door and called out to Mom in the kitchen: “Can I bring a friend home for dinner?”
“Sure,” she called back gladly.
I’d gotten halfway to “yes,” with her “sure,” but the tough part was ahead. We already had that pen of turtles out back, a slither of snakes in the cellar, Boots the cat, Petie the canary, and Pretty Boy the parakeet. Butch might be too much for Mom.
“Can I keep him? Walter gave him to me,” I announced rounding the kitchen corner. “They’re maybe going to kill him tomorrow.”
She sighed, thought it over for a few minutes and then delivered the classic line of mom acquiescence: “Only if you take care of him.”
So Butch came to stay. Quickly he became Duke, because Butch sounded to me like a juvenile delinquent and I wanted a dignified dog.
Duke would indeed turn into nobility, even though he was a thoroughbred mutt—some sort of Spaniel mixed with whatever. Springer Spaniel, I guessed, because of his talent of jumping straight up and looking around for rabbits and pheasants at Smith’s Pond. In a year, he grew to 45 pounds of white-and-black, floppy-eared, tick-collecting, field-romping primal force.
At Smith’s Pond, Duke began to teach me what I’d need to remember and would forget and remember again decades later.
Smith’s Pond was the last hint of wilderness in Penn Wynne. No cute lawns and asphalt driveways, just cattails, mud and murk. And no rules. Duke and I lived for this.
We hunted at Smith’s Pond many days after school. Duke had his own agenda—snaring pheasants and rabbits. In this, he was defeated daily. For my collection, I lusted after the beautiful painted pond turtles sunning themselves far out on logs in the murk; or giant bullfrogs lurking in the rushes at pond’s edge; or the wily and huge water snakes, who could do real damage with their teeth, unlike their smaller relatives in my cellar zoo.
Duke and I didn’t care that we bagged nothing at Smith’s Pond. I already had enough reptiles and amphibians. What mattered was the pond itself—about the size of a city block. It was all ours. I never saw another kid or adult there, even though developments encroached on every side and traffic constantly roared from a highway.
Obviously, the pond and everything in it was under a death sentence. Soon, it was plowed under, burying our marvelous friends without a thought. A half-dozen asbestos-sided stick jobs went up, with perfect patios, jolly barbeque sets and TVs with seven channels. The taming of Penn Wynne was complete. An immense boredom settled over the town.
But Duke’s joy never left me.
Adapted from All My Dogs: A Life by Bill Henderson © 2011. Published by David R. Godine
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., 2011; $26.99
With Susan Orlean’s much-awaited Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, readers face a sad story, but not for the reason you might think — that a wonderful, heroic dog will die in the end. In fact, this dog lived many lives, first in silent movies in the 1920s and again in the 1950s in one of the most popular television series in American history. And to some degree, Rinty still lives, though when I mentioned this book to my 45-year-old, dog-loving sister, she struggled to recall him. “He was a famous dog, right? On TV?”
The story begins with Lee Duncan, a man whose entire life was defined by two things: his boyhood years in an orphanage and his unshakable belief in the puppy he rescued from a World War I battlefield in France and named Rin Tin Tin.
Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, follows the story with the passion of an investigative reporter who’s also a lover of dogs, and her research is stunningly deep and comprehensive. Like the best of nonfiction, her book casts a wide net, and off the spine of Rinty’s biography she hangs a great many narrative excursions: the history of dogs in war; Hitler’s unsettling devotion to animal welfare; the story of Hollywood, from silent movies to color TV; the evolution of marketing in popular culture. But at the heart of Rin Tin Tin is “Lee’s private story about the possibility that love can be constant,” and that “a dog could make you whole.” This is what the dream, and the entire franchise, was built on.
The parts I liked best describe Rinty’s amazing acting talent: his ability to display an extraordinary range of emotion and his uncommon agility and physical grace. Unfortunately there’s little here to explain how Duncan actually trained the dog, and it’s not until halfway through the book that we learn about his first efforts at obedience training, which began in the 1930s after Rinty became a star.
Ultimately, Lee Duncan’s story is a lonely one of unfulfilled dreams, fortunes made and lost, and human connections that were at best tenuous. Despite the many hours she spent with his memoirs and archive, Orlean felt that he was “at once ingenuous and impenetrable … he remained a mystery.” The same can be said of Rin Tin Tin, the dog who has, for almost a century, stood as the embodiment of “bravery, loyalty and courage against evil of all kinds.”
This book leaves us hanging because, in the end, no dog is truly knowable. In this age of relentless human exhibitionism, it is perhaps this mystery that explains why we admire and revere dogs so much.
Author Susan Orlean describes Clash of The Wolves, a 1925 silent film starring Rin Tin Tin:
“The wolves, led by Lobo, attack a steer and the ranchers set out after them. The chase is fast and frightening, and when Rin Tin Tin weaves through the horses’ churning legs, it looks like he’s about to be trampled. He runs faster and for longer than seems possible. He outruns the horses, his body flattened and stretched as he bullets along the desert floor, and if you didn’t see the little puffs of dust when his feet touch the ground, you’d swear he was floating. He scrambles up a tree — a stunt so startling that I had to replay it a few times to believe it. Can dogs climb trees? Evidently. At least certain dogs can. And they can climb down, too, and then tear along a rock ridge, and then come to a halt at the narrow crest of the ridge. The other side of the gorge is miles away. Rin Tin Tin stops, pivots; you feel him calculating his options; then he crouches and leaps, and the half-second before he lands safely feels very long and fraught. His feet touch ground and he scrambles on, but a moment later he somersaults off the ledge of another cliff, slamming through the branches of a cactus, collapsing in a heap, with a cactus needle skewered through the pad of his foot.”
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