The Joy of Pets

Wendy in the back of Walt’s Land Rover, 1988
I grew up with dogs and cats, but my parents didn’t have a fenced-yard, so most of the dogs were killed by cars either because they wandered into the road or because they liked to chase them. Some were killed outright, some lingered, and one dog survived but half his face was gone. My parents were typical country people in that they wouldn’t take a dog or cat to a vet because dogs and cats were free and because they were seen as yappers rather than as pets. When one of my many dogs named Sassy was hit by a car, he ran into the yard, collapsed into my arms, and gazed into my eyes until he died. My father was very moved by this, but not enough to build a fence.

Mike was my first dog, and he was old when I was born. He was such a devoted car chaser that the mailman had run over him several times. The only thing I remember about Mike was him lying on the ground and flapping his tail while I peed on him. I considered this so funny that I could barely pee for laughing, which is probably why I remember it. As tolerant as he was of me, Mike would threaten any stranger who got near me, and this allowed my Mother to let me play outside my family’s country store without worrying about my safety.

A cousin who lived near Chattanooga gave me a cat named Smokie (or maybe it was Cinder, Blackie, or some other clever name for a black cat). She loved that cat, but he would rub against her legs (women wore dresses back then), and her legs would break out. I took the cat home to south Mississippi, which was a distance of 450 miles. Two days later, he left. My cousin and I would talk on the phone from time and I dreaded the day she asked about her cat, but she never did, and I never told her he was gone. About eight months after Smokie ran away, my cousin called, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Smokie came back.” She said she had heard a cat crying and scratching at the front door, and when she opened the door, Smokie ran past her to where his food bowl used to be. When she was a child, Peggy had a dog that came home from across town, but that was the first and only long-distance journey that I knew to be true.

For nearly eighteen years starting in the mid-seventies, I had a schnauzer named Wendy who was the only dog I ever knew who didn’t like to be petted, but she was completely devoted to me and went everywhere I went. When I worked as a remodeler, Wendy spent her days in gutted houses. When I worked as a roofer, Wendy would sit on the highest point of the ridge and either nap or watch the people going by. When I traveled the country checking out communes, drug parties, and orgies, Wendy checked out communes, drug parties, and orgies (as a non-participant). When I hitchhiked, Wendy hitchhiked. When Peggy and I went on vacation (being teachers, we would travel all summer and for two weeks in December), Wendy went too. Anywhere I was, Wendy was, and she always seemed content except for when we stayed at the Hare Krishna headquarters near Moundsville, West Virginia. The sights, sounds, smells, and behaviors of the hundreds of people at that place so weirded her out that she was enormously relieved when we left. 

Twice I left Wendy with other people while I ran an errand, and both times, I met her walking down the road looking for me when I returned. Because she went everywhere and scarcely knew what a leash looked like, Wendy had a lot of accidents over her 17-years, the worst of which was when she fell from the top of a football stadium onto concrete. She and some kids had run up the bleachers, and although there was a guardrail at the top, it was too high to do Wendy any good, and, not realizing that she was on the last step, she jumped one time too many and screamed as she fell. It took over a year for her to recover from that, and for the first couple of months, I had to carry her outdoors to use the bathroom.

Twice, she had her side ripped-open by barbwire. Another time, she chased a cat across the street and ran into the wheel of a passing car (the spinning of the wheel caused her to roll a few times, but she wasn’t hurt). One night, she ate an entire box of rat poison. I called the vet at home, and he said to give her hydrogen peroxide until she barfed the poison up. I was out of peroxide so I drove the seven miles into town to get some. When I got to the checkout, I discovered that I didn’t have any money, so I told the clerk I would pay her later and ran out of the store. I got Wendy out of the truck, and sat on the curb right there in front of Krogers pouring peroxide down her throat. She and everyone else who saw me thought I had lost my mind, but I got that poison out of her. (Peroxide only works if the dog recently ate the poison.) She had other accidents too—eating a used contraceptive sponge comes to mind—but these are the ones I remember best.

For some of the time I had Wendy, I lived on eight acres in a house that my father and I built. If Wendy was asleep on the porch, I would sometimes sneak off into the woods, climb a tree, and call her. The woods being open, I could see her searching for me. For some reason, it never occurred to her to look up, so she would return to the tree time after time, and wonder why I wasn’t there. I would wait until she was far away to come down, and then I would run to another part of the woods and wait for her to find me.

During a trip to New York, Peggy and I went to an outdoor Paul Winter concert at a Sufi commune that had previously been a Shaker commune. During the concert, Paul instructed the audience to howl, and Wendy joined in. After Paul thought we had howled enough, he motioned for us to stop, but Wendy didn’t get the message. If anyone in that audience had an inalienable right to howl, it was she, so I let her rip. People soon started looking around for the jerk who was howling, but Wendy was so low to the ground that few people could see her.

On a hot Minnesota day, I took her to some other outdoor entertainment, and as we left, Wendy was lying on her back in my arms with her head hanging down and her legs splayed out. Someone asked if she was okay, and I said, “No, she’s dead, but it doesn’t matter because she was old anyway.” Years later, a woman said she was moved by Wendy’s loyalty to me, so I offered to sell Wendy to her, and named a price. The woman looked horrified and said that she could never buy my dog, so I kept dropping the price until she went away mad. 

Baxter in a customary posture, 2009
Baxter was also a black schnauzer, but he weighed almost twice as much as Wendy. Sometimes, he would eat used dental floss, and we wouldn’t know it until his shit came out like a rosary. Because the floss never came all the way out, his shit would follow him when he walked away, and this would seriously wig him out (as it would any of us). Peggy would then pull the floss out of his ass while I acted like I didn’t know either of them. I always left it to Peggy to do things that were gross or embarrassing, what with her being a nurse and all. Every now and then, she would decide that Baxter’s ass needed wiping, so she would take a Kleenex and wipe it. I hated it when she did this in public. (When our cat, Brewsky, washes his ass, he makes a face like that of someone who just tasted a dill pickle for the first time.)

One day, Baxter was in the back of my van with the groceries (it’s never a good idea to put food where a schnauzer can get to it), and broke into a large bag of carob chips. He vomited for a long time, but it was nothing compared to when we were camping in Arkansas, and our Irish Setter, Patty, got bit by a copperhead. She was too swollen to walk, so to cheer her up, I gave her a tin of sardines, which she threw up all over our bed. When Peggy said I should have seen it coming, I said that any man would have done the same, and she agreed.

Schnauzers are more flexible than most dogs
We have a lot of raccoons in our neighborhood, and they can be aggressive, which makes them scary in the dark when you can’t see them. One night, I let Bonnie and Baxter out to pee only to realize that there were eight or ten raccoons in the yard. The dogs exploded, so after thinking the situation over, the raccoons crossed the street and went into a culvert that emptied into a canal eight feet below street level. Baxter ran in after them, and there soon followed a cacophony of snarling, growling, and screaming (Baxter doing the last). Having nothing else at hand, I ran across the street in my underwear with a plastic tennis-ball throwing stick and slid down the dew-covered grass to the mouth of the culvert just in time to see Baxter exit the culvert with a raccoon’s teeth in his ass. Being on a steep and wet slope with nothing for a weapon but a plastic stick, I worried that the raccoon might attack me too, but he finally went back into the culvert. By then, Baxter was at home finding comfort on Peggy’s breast.

On another occasion, Baxter ran right up to our neighbors’ two huskies and barked in their faces like he expected them to run. They looked at him with a pleased expression that said, “Oh, happy day, we get to kill us an annoying moron.” One husky hit him from the front and the other from the rear, a situation that caused Baxter to lie on his back and have a bowel movement. The huskies’ person, Dave, grabbed one dog and I the other. When Dave later suggested that my schnauzer had bitten off more than he could chew, I said that, no, he was in the process of waging chemical warfare, and I had only stepped in to save the huskies.

Bonnie Blue, 2002
My heeler, Bonnie, was a strong and aggressive dog who would bite both people and other dogs, yet when I felt the need to chasten her, even a gentle word would break her heart, so I would always cuddle with her afterwards. By contrast, when Baxter disobeyed, I could scream, curse, wave my fist in his face, and jump up and down, during which time, he would look at me with his eyes wide and his front teeth shining in his black face (his upper lip was too short to cover his teeth) as if he was swearing on his mother’s grave that he would never commit such an outrage again. As soon as my back was turned, he would commit the same outrage again, and I could have screamed at him all day long without it making the least difference. He was much like a cat in this way. Brewsky is so stubborn that unless something is really important to me, I don’t even bother correcting him, and even then treats work better than chastisement.

When Bonnie was half grown, she and I would drive to the hospital at midnight to pick Peggy up from work. One night, I saw Peggy walking out of the hospital before Bonnie did, so I said, “Bonnie, where’s Peggy?” Bonnie looked at me with her pretty eyes while tilting her beautiful head from side to side as she considered the possibilities. Then, she jumped onto the floorboard and looked under the seat! I’ve often been delighted by indications that dogs see the world in a very different way than people. It’s as if they believe in magic.

Bonnie also taught me another useful lesson. People often try to make friends with a dog by letting the dog sniff their fingers. Bonnie would take this as an invitation to bite their fingers, so, instead of offering my open hand to strange dogs, I now offer them the back of my fist because it’s harder for a dog to hurt a person’s fist.

Another thing I learned from Bonnie was that different breeds differ enormously in jaw strength. If I wanted to give Baxter a pill, I could easily pry his mouth open, but Bonnie had such strength in her jaws that I was afraid I would break them. 

She couldn't have been more beautiful
One day, I was walking from the backyard to the frontyard when I passed Bonnie crossing the backyard in the other direction. “Hello, Bonnie,” I said, to which she responded, “You’re the joy of my life, Master” (she used to say this a lot, but I never tired of hearing it). Imagine my surprise when I got to the frontyard and found Bonnie fast asleep in the shade. Since there was a total of four closed gates between the two yards, I either hallucinated a dog, or Bonnie did something weird.

I have a neighbor who’s phobic of dogs. One day he was in my yard while Bonnie was out, and he started trembling when he saw her, so she naturally ran across the yard and bit him on the ankle, which inspired him to squeal and throw himself to the ground. It wasn’t the kind of thing that one man should see another man do. Our mailman was also phobic of dogs, so he would approach our house with his hand on his pepper spray.

I watched a skinny little blond girl of seven who, upon seeing Bonnie, ran away screaming and waving her arms in the air in a textbook illustration of how to behave if you want to be bitten by a dog. Another time, a woman was determined to make friends with Bonnie, so she gave her treat after treat until she ran out of treats. Thinking that she and Bonnie were now friends, she stuck out her empty hand, and Bonnie snapped at it in contradiction of the belief that a dog won’t bite the hand that feeds it.

I only saw Bonnie back down twice. On one occasion, I had a weight-bench and some other things in the driveway that I was hoping to sell, and I was in the garage looking for more things to put out. I trusted Bonnie to let me know when I had a customer, so imagine my surprise to find a huge, heavily muscled, and gruff-voiced man standing right there beside me. I immediately looked at Bonnie as if to ask, “Why the fuck didn’t you say something?” and she looked at me like she wanted to melt into the floor. The man said he was fresh out of prison and looking for a weight bench so he could keep up his exercise regimen. 

On the second occasion, Bonnie and Peggy and I were camping in ranch country. Peggy likes to take a walk in the evening, and on this occasion she and Bonnie wanted to walk more than I. It became dark before they returned and, cowdog though she was, Bonnie had never seen a cow, so when all these big bovines started walking toward her and Peggy in the darkness, Bonnie took off running and didn’t stop until she got back to the van. Peggy is afraid of cows too, but she couldn’t run fast enough to keep up with Bonnie.

I had two rabbits named Becky and Buster who I would allow to wander around the backyard during the daytime. Becky was bad about getting out of the yard, and one day she escaped into an overgrown vacant lot. I tried and tried but couldn’t catch her, and during all this, Bonnie was at my side begging, “Let me do it! Let me do it! I can do it; I promise you that I can do it. Please oh please, let me do it.” Finally, I said, “Bonnie, get Becky, but don’t hurt her,” and within seconds, Bonnie had Becky penned to the ground with one paw over Becky’s back.

Once, Peggy and I were biking on country roads with Bonnie and Baxter when two big and strong dogs came out from a house and crowded Peggy in an effort to wreck her bike. We got past them okay, but on the trip back they became more aggressive, so I got between them and Peggy, and told her to take Bonnie and Baxter and go on ahead, which she did. As the two dogs and I stood staring at one another, I realized that Bonnie had returned and was pressing against my leg. For awhile there was a stand-off as the two dogs waited for us to leave, presumably so they could attack us when our backs were turned. I had a can of pepper spray, so I got off my bike, pointed it at them, and starting walking in their direction, all the while cursing and threatening in a deadly serious voice. Then, the strangest thing happened. At the exact same instant, they turned in unison and walked away, and I’ve always wondered how they communicated their intention to do this. I’ve remembered those dogs many times over the years, always with an appreciation for their seeming intelligence and the harmony with which they worked together. Since then, my dogs have been twice attacked by pit bulls, and I even had to beat one off Baxter with my fists. I have come to despise pit bulls. 

Friendlier than he looks, Brewsky at 16.5 lbs
As Peggy’s cat-loving sister warned us when we finally got burned-out on the work of having dogs and got a rescue cat, “You’re dog people, and a cat is not a dog.” The second half of her statement is true. Unlike dogs, Brewsky doesn’t want to go on adventures. He wants to stay home, eat, sleep (in the same places at the same times everyday), have deep-tissue massages, kill spiders, and gaze out the window at passing critters. Most of the time, we have little idea what he’s thinking or feeling because his expression doesn’t change much, yet he is obviously attached to us as can be seen by his desire to be near us, the sweet way he greets us at the front door after we’ve been shopping, and the fact that he becomes upset when we’re packing to go somewhere (he even stops pooping while we’re away). Still, I can’t feel the rapport with him that comes so easily with dogs. For example, Peggy still cries over Bonnie and Baxter, although they’ve been dead for years, and a couple of weeks ago, she was crying while holding Brewsky, and instead of being supportive, Brewsky became annoyed and bit her lightly on the neck. No dog would have done that, and it reinforces my belief that, at the very least, Brewsky is oblivious to social cues that are easily understood by dogs and humans.

This doesn’t mean I’m sorry I have a cat or that I would prefer to have a dog, because cats come with some very attractive features. For example, the litter box feature, the self-cleaning feature, the clean-smelling feature (Bonnie had a wonderful musky odor, but this is rare in dogs), and the fact that, instead of needing a walk when the weather is crap, he would think we had lost our minds if we tried to take him. So, while I feel less of a connection with a cat, decades of caring for dogs has led me to a place I never imagined I would reach, that is I have come to value convenience over connection. Still, not a day goes that I don’t miss having dogs, but aside from the trouble and expense, I also have to consider how Brewsky would feel, and I’ve no doubt but what he would feel betrayed. Humans tend to expect pets to adjust to whatever we throw at them, but sometimes they don’t, and this can be a drag for everyone concerned.

I could go on with pet stories for quite some time, but whatever I wanted to achieve for myself with this post, I think I have, so this seems like a good place to stop. No, I have one more story.

We have a gas furnace in our laundry room and because it is noisy, I built a wheeled plywood surround with vent holes. Brewsky was forever knocking his toys under the plywood, so I finally took off one of the vent covers so he could retrieve them. The furnace soon became his special place, and he would stay there for hours every day. When I discovered that one of the things he was doing in his special place was chewing insulation, I put the vent cover back on, and, god, but did this ever piss him off! He stomped around mewing loudly in a way that could only be interpreted as profanity, and this made me feel closer to him because I could relate to his  frustration at being unable to hold onto something that was important to him. My pets have given me a window into species other than my own, and Peggy and I both miss some of the dogs we’ve lost more than we do our parents. I don’t trust people who don’t love animals. Sometimes, a person will come to my house and, when greeted by my pet, look at him or her in silence, as if a dog or cat has no more feelings than a knick-knack. Once that happens, a distance is created between that person and myself that will never be breached. If someone should ask me who I am, near the top would be: a person who loves animals.