Remember the scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Atticus shoots the rabid dog? That hardly ever happens any more. When I was a kid, there were dogs and cats roaming around everywhere. Nobody spayed or neutered their pets; it was a “free love” era for domesticated animals. The first time I saw a male dog stuck to the rear of our sweet but misnamed family dog Killer, I was flabbergasted, horrified, and fascinated. Killer had two litters of 12 – 15 puppies for probably ten years straight, so eventually I witnessed that scene at least a dozen times. Traces of her bloodline probably still enrich the dogs of Western NY, 35 years after her demise.
The pre-spay/neuter imitative days were filled with uninvited but certainly welcomed (at least by me) kittens and puppies. Assisting at countless live births, I came to view myself as a small animal doula. These trusting pregnant creatures, some of whom followed me everywhere as their time neared, actually seemed soothed by my presence. As I watched yet another cat’s body bow to the demands of birth and stroked her head as she pushed the little sac-enclosed offspring into the world, I was internalizing a peace with the realities of nature that served me well when my own turn to give birth came many years later.
My childhood was filled with an endless parade of pets, from the gerbil who spent the last 9 seconds of its short life in my jewelry box, to Charlotte, the mallard duck I won as an adorable duckling at the St. Anthony’s church lawn fete and who followed me everywhere but to school in the ensuing years. Once, at my parents’ insistence, we tried to return Charlotte to the wild (although the closest thing to the “wild” she had ever experienced was a cardboard box in some carny’s RV) by taking her down to the Olcott Yacht Club, but she was just as horrified of the strange winged creatures flocking there as they were of her. For some reason she was twice as large as they were, but failing to recognize her superior size and strength, she clung to my side in a panic and tried to jump into my arms. One day Charlotte vanished, never to be seen again, and I didn’t learn until years later than my mother had found her beak and feet in a pile of feathers in our back yard.
I loved them all — the reptiles, mammals, birds, fish, and even bugs that were my companions through a harsh childhood. I remember the terrible loss I felt when I realized I had left my McDonald’s paper french fry envelope filled with tent caterpillars at the lovely department store I had visited with my mother, nestled in a table of cashmere sweaters. Those caterpillars were so cute and fuzzy — they were my friends, and I was bereft at losing them. But really, the most precious, instructive, and lasting relationships from those younger years were surely those I formed with dogs. We always had dogs, as many as five at a time, but the first one that was “mine” was Bridget. She came into my life when I was 8 years old and departed when I was 25. A loving, enthusiastic little apricot poodle/cocker mix, she was my constant companion and ardent student, quick to pick up on all the little tricks I taught her, like jumping through a hoop or twirling across the room on her hind legs. Only once did she really let me down. It was the day I found her tossing kittens. She had come across a brand new litter of kittens in the bed of ivy next to the house, and she succumbed to her baser instincts and took them by the heads and tossed them up in the air, breaking their necks. She was tossing number four of six when I caught her in the act. She was terribly ashamed of herself and never did anything like that again, and it was a valuable lesson for me on understanding instinctual drives, which can take over even the purest of hearts. That terrible incident aside, Bridget set the standard for every dog that came after her, and gave me an opportunity to give and receive love when it was not available elsewhere.
Bailey and Ruby are the lucky little mutts that share our lives now. Ruby is in her prime, a little Jack Russell live wire, constantly curious, devious, communicative, aching for action and interaction. Bailey, at 15 or so, is nearing the end of her life. She is lumpy, smelly, and noisy with grunts and snorts and hacks. A formerly ardent hunter who has lost her competitive edge, she is now semi-retired , and her greatest joys have become kibble and affection, the latter of which in all honesty is a little harder to give now that she has become, frankly, kind of disgusting. Still, we force ourselves. She certainly has earned whatever goodness we can give her. She has been a wonderful and devoted dog, loving and protecting our son Shane throughout his childhood and being a great companion to us all. Bailey is Shane’s Bridget, the defining dog of his childhood, who would watch his soccer games and frantically bark if he were running on the field at the front of the pack, but content if he were running at the BACK of the pack. She was fine with him being in pursuit of others, but anxious to run onto the field and protect him if others were pursuing him. She spent every night until the day he left for college sleeping in his bed, under the covers, washing his legs until they both fell asleep. She was the nanny dog who felt a great responsibility to protect and care for our family.
Sadly, Baily gave Ruby false self-expectations shortly after she joined our family that she has never recovered from. She lives in delusion to this day. An extremely unfortunate squirrel fell through the entryway ceiling of our huge and drafty old Victorian house and the two dogs chased it up and down the ornate grand stairway, through all twelve rooms at least twice, around the dining room table, in and out of the fireplace, over the parlor settee, and across the shower curtain rod before finally cornering it in Shane’s bedroom and dismantling it. Well actually Bailey did all this and Ruby followed two steps behind, her eyes popping and tongue lolling, thinking herself a brutal primal hunter, absolutely intoxicated with the excitement of it all. She wasn’t even a year old and may have had those instructions written somewhere on her DNA, but if so, they were written in small and blurry letters. I think Bailey let her get a taste of tail tip towards the end, but as far as Ruby was concerned, the whole thing was her idea and her greatest accomplishment. She hasn’t stopped trying to kill things since, and has never once succeeded, while Bailey has gone on to take down several woodchucks, countless moles and mice, half a dozen squirrels, and a skunk.
Any hope I had that Ruby would become self-actualized and ever actually achieve her goal of killing a small creature was completely dashed only last week when she had a golden opportunity and completely blew it. We had gotten up early and there was an unsuspecting squirrel at the base of the bird feeders, just off the deck at the bottom of the stairs. The grass was quite long, as a spate of wet weather had made mowing impossible, and the squirrel’s attention was directed down at the ground where it was taking an inventory of my sunflower seeds. It didn’t hear me open the sliding glass door. They always hear me opening the sliding glass door. And it didn’t hear Ruby run across the deck. And it didn’t hear Ruby launch herself off the top of the stairs, flying in a perfect arc down onto the squirrels body. “She has finally done it,” I thought, getting a little misty eyed as I saw my furkid’s dearest goal met. Then I watched as she bounced off the squirrel, which she never actually saw, and continue on to the base of the lilac bush to look up into the branches for signs of any furry interlopers. The squirrel, meanwhile, shrieked like a little girl and darted off in the opposite direction. This is a prime example of Ruby’s intelligence working against her, as she went to where she thought the squirrel would be, rather than relying on her senses to spot the squirrel right in front of her. A little less reasoning, a little more instinct, and she might have done it.
Ruby is probably the cleverest dog I have ever had or known. I am sometimes shocked by her reasoning skills and deviousness. She understands a huge vocabulary and is adept at following instructions that include differentiating between names. She will instantly, accurately respond to commands such as “Go get your pink tennis ball and give it to Daddy” (she ignores the green ones and gets the specific ball you request), or “Go upstairs and get your blue bone” (and she heads straight for the stairs to fetch the toy she left there days or weeks before). But she does not always use her powers for good. I gave her a frozen blueberry one morning and she didn’t really feel like eating it, so she set it on the floor. I told Bailey to come over and eat it, and Ruby picked the blueberry up and with a sideways flip of her head, purposely hurled it under the refrigerator. She didn’t want it, but she’d be damned if that other dog was going to get it. Her latest project is learning to talk. She moves her mouth and makes sounds like words in an attempt to communicate with us, and gets terribly frustrated when we don’t get her meaning, which we actually do. It is almost always “give me a treat” or “throw this ball”, and sometimes, frankly, we just don’t feel like it. Ruby is loaded with personality quirks and just a touch of evil, and that makes her endlessly entertaining and endearing.
As I write, the two little buggers are curled up like little nautilus shells, one on each side of me here on the couch, bookends, arm rests. I can feel their warm hearts beating through my body. They want to be touching me whenever possible. Whatever room I am in, so are they. When I tire of the dog hair everywhere, the barking at non-existent burglars, the beseeching at the table, I remind myself that like all sentient beings who wish us well, who look out for our well being, who adore us despite our many shortcomings, they are rare, and they are good for us. And I cherish the little lunkheads anew.