The Imaginary Dog Awards

Take a bow, or a bone, whatever works
By Phil Austin, June 2015

You won’t find the Imaginary Dog Awards among your television listings. You won’t find them in the plethora of awards shows that grace every channel, celebrating the sensibilities of shallowness like salt in the cracks of an evaporated pond. (Do I sound bitter?) The Imaginary Dog Awards are a fiction created by my dogs, or so I’ve come to believe. I’d include myself as a co-creator if I didn’t accept their uncanny canine power over me. My dogs have saved me from bitterness, and in return, they’ve acquired a guy who can open a can of dog food with the best of them.

I do know a little something about real awards shows. For the last 40 years or so, I’ve been one of the four members of a reputedly avant-garde comedy group called The Firesign Theatre. We’ve made a whole lot of records and CDs and a few video and film projects, and have done stage shows as well. In the process, we’ve been nominated three times for a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. And we’ve lost each and every time. It’s pathetic. We’ve rented limos and been to cocktail parties. (We even appeared on TV one memorable year—Jerry Seinfeld was nominated with us, and so the powers-that-be thought it worthwhile to put our award on the tube.) But each time, we’ve lost. We’ve lost to Weird Al. We’ve lost to Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and George Carlin. Lost like goats.

I’ve driven that lonely limo called “Just-Glad-to-Be-Nominated,” and believe me, the little shreds of my stillborn acceptance speeches still rattle around my pitiful brain. It’s positively embarrassing. I’d love to have risen from my seat, fist punching the air as the TV cameras rolled, loved to have kissed the Blonde Bombshell and trotted up on stage with my partners to babble and be cut short by an orchestra eager to go home, but it didn’t happen and—because of dogs—I’m not bitter, or so it turns out.

Over the years, the Bombshell (her actual name is Oona) and I have adjusted to the inevitable. If we are not to be award-winners, we can at the very least become award–givers. The awards we give out are called the Imaginary Dog Awards. Our life is all about dogs, after all. And our imaginations. And the dogs’ eerie control over our imaginations. Let me explain.

It’s been said by responsible scientific types that dogs just might be entirely responsible for human civilization, that our complex web of social life would have been impossible were it not for the domestication of wolves, that without wolves raising the alarm and protecting humans and helping them hunt, humans wouldn’t have had the time to construct civilization. This is a perfectly plausible theory, but it’s large-scale and long-term, like evolution. My theory is short-term, but weirdly logical.

I have come to believe (I hope I’m not imagining this) that dogs are somehow able to control human imagination in order to get us to give them more dog food. (My dogs love dog food more than anything in life, and I’ll bet yours aren’t far behind.) The fact that I make up stories about them, ascribe to them human-like characteristics, have names for them, talk to them constantly, write about them ... it’s all their doing. They’re controlling me, not the other way around. Ostensibly, it’s human imagination at work, but I’m suspicious—it creates a fantasy that results in dogs getting more dog food, at least in the case of our awards.

Whatever their origin, the Imaginary Dog Awards are fun. Oona and I have been campers for all our life together. Years ago, we thought we’d cleverly instituted a family tradition: On the last night of any camping trip, we’d have an awards ceremony and present our many dogs with some awards. Over the past 35 years, we’ve had usually five or six dogs at a time, so you can imagine the number of awards that have been given out. Plus, we usually manage two or three major camping trips a year—most often in the Eastern Sierra or the Sonoran Desert of Arizona or, more recently, the Pacific Northwest, particularly on the beaches thereof.

At this point, your intelligence begins to kick in. Face the facts, Your Intelligence says, even though dogs don’t actually care about the Dog Awards; don’t understand that you give them names; only care about dog food, other dogs and sleep, in that order—still, you and Oona are people who enjoy talking to your dogs, and about them, as though they’re both human and care what you’re saying.

You’re right, I say, it’s really just us two humans entertaining one another, of course. But the more we do it, the more the whole fabric of our imaginary dog conversations takes on the spooky feel of reality. Ignoring the obvious is a big part of dog ownership, to be sure.

Your Intelligence then points out that, since dogs have a unique ability to make humans feel better about anything and everything, why not give them awards for this, if nothing else? Well, yeah, I say, and Your Intelligence quickly and politely mentions that Oona and I could easily have thought up the awards all by ourselves.

We’re certainly a big part of things. Indeed, if you watch enough TV, you’ll notice that many shows feature a certain amount of carousing, and we do try to fit that in. No matter where we are, no matter how unshaven (me), how peaceful (her), how uneager to return to what passes for Life, we manage to squirrel away a bottle of Champagne to crack open around the campfire on the last night in camp. We drink out of those big plastic container-cups with covered tops. Big Gulp Champagne, we call it, and it’s become an Imaginary Dog Awards favorite.

We’ll save something special—french fries, in the most recent instance—and watch the stars pick up where they left off the night before, she and I in our camp chairs, the dogs lying underfoot. Oona will have her current journal open in her lap and we’ll look up at the night and contemplate Orion or Cassiopeia or Arcturus rising and think about the weeks of camping. Then comes the drinking of Champagne and the handing out of awards. She’ll write down the winners and make watercolor sketches of the event. Our policy is that no dog goes without an award, even the (semi-coveted) Worst Camper Award.

Over the years, amid the humdrum acceptance speeches for the more pedestrian awards (Best Camper, Best Sleeper, etc.) some great moments stand out: That memorable night in the desert, beneath the dead-black saguaros, under a crescent moon, when Bodie, our biggest and best Australian Cattle Dog, pulled down the one-time I Bit the Ranger award, after a playful nip to the sleeve of Ranger Steve (who’s since become a friend, even dropping by our camp at the end of his shifts to see his dear friend Bodie).

We’ll never forget Porter the Pup winning the Avoiding the Cat on a Leash award. Then there was the weeping, star-struck night when Noodle, our Unknown Breed, was given the It’s Only a Fatty Tumor award after a trip to the vet to examine some mysterious lumps. Waddel the Red Heeler got big laughs as he accepted the Open Pit Mine award for his fine work under the picnic table, and there was Wigeon, the sainted matriarch of Cattle Dogs, winning the Take Me to a Motel award (also known as the I Hate the Desert award).

But the really outstanding moment was a double award nailed down by General Douglas McBugeye, who, while in the High Sierra, won not only the Most Improved Camper award, but followed up almost immediately with the Worst Camper award. The applause was deafening. Fries flew over the heads of the crowd, spinning in the klieg lights. (I handle the kliegs—those little waterproof flashlights work really well—and toss the carbs.)

Here’s to all the nominees. They reach high and grab their fried trophies, and they roll over and sleep, on their backs, four feet straight up, under the stars. Much better than me and the Bombshell—losing at the Grammys, riding home in the back seat of our limo … but—wait a minute—having spent the rest of the evening four feet away from the best Bluegrass musicians in the world playing just for us at one of the many wonderful intimate post-Grammy parties you get to attend whether you win or lose, finishing off the Champagne as the city lights spread below us like ... yeah, wait a minute indeed, let me rethink this. It doesn’t sound bad at all. In fact, we’ve always had a very good time once the Bad News was announced.

Comedy is nothing if not about imagination, and if the Grammys—or even the Dog Awards—were to give out an award for Best Imaginer, I’d probably have a chance at it. And if my theories are correct, I’d trot up on stage after getting on tiptoes to kiss the Bombshell (she’s very beautiful, but considerably taller than I am) and elbow whoever’s up there out of the spotlight to grab the microphone and thank all my dogs, past and present. They got me there, I’d be nothing without them, etc., etc. And I’d be right. The current crop would be waiting out in the limo, asleep and dreaming, presumably, about dog food and how you’d imagine something called the Imaginary Grammy Awards in order to get more. Oona and I would wave goodbye to Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss and collapse into the limo clutching our statuette, and pull out the Big Gulps and pop the Champagne and tell the nice driver to go slow and get up into the hills so we could hold hands and watch the city lights spread out below.

Ah, imagination. Ah, dog food.

Phil Austin is best known for writing/performing with the Firesign Theater where he portrayed Nick Danger, Third Eye, among other favorites. He contributed this essay to Howl: A Collection of Dog Wit. After a long illness, Austin died at his home on Fox Island, Wash. on June 19, 2015.