“Sit. Stay. Stay! I said STAY, dammit!”

Despite the temptation to give myself over to ululations for the natural world in light of the recent midterm elections, I will be brave and strong. In fact, I’ll look to our dogs for clues about how to move ahead in confounding times with good cheer, if not always with a lot of grace, and perhaps with only an occasional low moan or two.

In an earlier post, I considered the change my walking pace has undergone over the years. What has remained constant is the presence of dogs on these rambles. When I’m in Colorado, I usually borrow dogs from my sister or my father. (Walking with my mother’s dogs was often a little demoralizing; she worried aloud that bears and mountain lions might attack them, but she never expressed any anxiety for me.) At Madroño, I’ve walked with a long line of brave and stupid dogs who’ve both saved me from and almost led me to some gruesome fates.

The first was sweet Daisy, a lovely golden retriever/English setter mix and the mildest of dogs—until she was on the ranch, where she became Trained Assassin Daisy, Scourge of Armadillos! I had never known that armadillos had much to say until I watched Daisy in hot pursuit of one at the north end of the property; speedier than it looked, it made a loud whirring noise, as if it were wearing a propeller beanie. Daisy missed that one, but she got lots of others. We decided that she loved them because they were “crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside.”

One Thanksgiving Day at the ranch, we were all—parents, siblings, children, dogs, friends—walking up the steep hill above the lake when Daisy proudly came galloping up to us with what she must have thought was an unusually hairy armadillo in her mouth. She was delighted until she dropped it at our feet and found that much of it remained in her mouth. (It was, of course, a porcupine.)

Sweet as she was, she allowed us to pull out many of the hundreds of spines in her snout, under her tongue, in her gums, etc., but the job proved to be too much for us. Even though it was a holiday, we tracked down a laconic vet in Hunt who said he wasn’t doing anything but watching football, so sure, bring her on in. When they had gotten Daisy anesthetized and yanked out the remaining spines, Martin said to the vet, “Well, I bet most dogs only make this mistake once, right?” The vet cocked an eyebrow and said, “You’d be surprised.” Thank heavens we haven’t been surprised since then.

A few years later, we found a black puppy with a broken back leg at the gate who turned out to be Phoebe, our now-blind life-guide, about whom Martin wrote admiringly a few weeks ago. Phoebe has been a wonderful walking companion, although one of her chief virtues—steadiness—may very well stem from the fact that her eyesight was never very good; maybe she just didn’t see all those armadillos and porcupines and deer. She did notice snakes, however, and helpfully made little sideways hops to notify me that I should step elsewhere.

But even the admirable Phoebe occasionally caused me dismay. Aside from her tragic and annoying moans whenever I stopped to listen for and look at birds, Phoebe proved to be susceptible to wayward influences like, for example, our next dog, Honey. One day, a couple of months after Daisy died, I was at our neighborhood pharmacy in Austin. A couple of local kids who worked there had brought in a dog they’d found on the downtown hike and bike trail, skittish and covered with fleas. Their mothers had told them to find it another home. I looked and saw a fluff-bomb with an absurdly curling tail who might have had chow and/or golden retriever and/or some mountain dog in her, and maybe a little Ewok too. The kids noticed that I couldn’t take my eyes off her and asked, “Do you want her?” “Yes,” I said, helplessly smitten. Martin said something else, which I can’t repeat here, when I returned home with toothpaste, shampoo, and a new dog, but Honey was irresistible.

She was also, alas, flightier than Phoebe. Once, after the kids and our friend Charles and I had scrambled up a beautiful and nearly inaccessible draw at the ranch, we came upon a herd of aoudads, who were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Honey got a young aoudad in her sights and went after it, determined to tear its throat out, despite the shrieks and rocks we hurled at her. She backed the youngster into a fence while its mother threatened to eviscerate her with her great curling horns. Charles gallantly gave up his belt to get our darling murderous fluff-bomb under control, as Phoebe valiantly barked encouragement from a safe distance.

Another time, one of my favorite emergency-backup children and I went walking with Phoebe and Honey. We were in the canyon where we had once found a pair of rusted iron bedsteads and a rusted cast-iron Dutch oven, just poking around to see what other inexplicable but suggestive oddities we might find, when we heard a series of distinctively coyotic yips in the dense woods around us. In an instant, the dogs were gone, gone, gone. Despite our most beguiling efforts, Phoebe and Honey yodeled their way up to the top of the draw, and then Dave and I heard something else: snorts. Hogs. The woods were so thick we couldn’t see them, but we could hear them. Lots of them. Close by. Oh, great, I thought. How am I going to explain to my best friend that her sweet gangly son was carved up by feral hogs because my idiot dogs went gallivanting off to be eaten by a pack of coyotes? We all made it back to the house safely, but Phoebe’s irresponsible behavior still galls me.

And then another time, the dogs and I were out by ourselves when they, officers of ranch security, uncovered a plot by a couple dozen sows and piglets to disrupt our walk. Much barkage. Much squealing. Much inelegant scrambling by Someone to get into a tree and above tusk level. Much hilarity in the kitchen after our return to think about Someone sitting in a scruffy little scrub oak for half an hour wondering if the dogs were still alive and if the pigs were really gone. Phoebe got a really scalding series of lectures for that lapse.

Generally speaking, though, Honey and Phoebe were fine walking companions. When Honey died of cancer a few years ago, we realized that she had been acting as Phoebe’s seeing-eye dog, because Phoebe’s deteriorating eyesight meant she was quite literally lost without her. Phoebe’s ranch rambles have ended, but Chula the Goggle-Eyed Ricochet Hound has become my new companion and is presenting all sorts of interesting challenges.

While she doesn’t seem to have Daisy’s and Honey’s ferocious streak (except, sadly, when it comes to chickens), she has a hair-trigger chase reflex and is speedy enough to catch a deer, as we learned to our amazement a few years ago (fortunately, once she finally cornered it in the angle of a fence, she seemed content just to lie there panting and stare at it), or anything else that roams the ranch. (She’s learned to ignore the bison, a fine survival strategy; despite their awkward-appearing bulkiness, bison are plenty quick themselves, and they definitely don’t like dogs.) I’ve started using a shock collar on her, to discourage her from rocketing off after hogs; I heard not too long ago about a woman whose dogs took off after a bunch of hogs, who then turned on the dogs, who then ran back to their mom, who ended up with sixty stitches in her leg from the pursuing porkers. Fortunately, Chula is a total wienie when it comes to pain, and the early results with the shock collar have been promising.

The adventures, clearly, will continue.

What we’re reading
Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
Martin: Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island

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One Response to “Sit. Stay. Stay! I said STAY, dammit!”

  1. RAG says:

    Do pull out your Thurber's "The Dog That Bit People" for a closing thought. Tonight when Emma barks the 2nd time about 3 AM, we're trying out the Coke can full of pennies down the stairs reply. Soak us this glorious Austin weather!

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