The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s. ~Mark Twain, letter to W.D. Howells, April 2, 1899
Once upon a time, there was a family of four boys. The children dreamed of owning a dog. However, their father had allergies and was convinced that dogs were really reincarnated socialists — lazy, unemployed and insensitive to the consequences of having a large family. The constant plea for a canine companion fell on deaf ears. But fate would not deny them. A chance encounter with a litter of mongrel puppies while on a beach in San Diego led to the rash and exciting adoption of Brutus, a flop eared cockapoo mix who pattered across their floors and hearts for eight glorious weeks. To this day, each boy recalls the black moment when he learned his new dog had succumbed to canine distemper.
Brutus was followed by Max, a “pound puppy” whose heritage was about as clear as the ingredients of English blood sausage. Each morning, the boys would stir in bed as they heard Max push open the back door of the house to go outside. He would conduct a cursory patrol of the neighborhood looking for anything out of the ordinary. As with any carnivore or herder, it is best not to run as it only encourages spirited pursuit. Max could close a 30 yard gap in five seconds and bring down any mammal five times his weight with a bite and twist of the ankle. The dog was the perfect playmate — bred to run among a pack of wild things — jumping fences, biting, tackling, and chasing any moving object upon the simple command of “Get ‘em!” When tears and disappointments arrived like seasonal storms, Max’s warm presence would quell the tempest with a simple lick of the afflicted kid’s ear. He smelled of damp, woolen clothes and warm, dirty blankets. Max endured one annual bath where he was sheared, coated with an explosion of fragrant flea powder and branded with a humiliating bow around his collar. As if sensing his masculinity was in question, he would aggressively scratch against an ancient pine tree to remove the ribbon and then roll across pine needles and dirt to eradicate the smell of the kennel salon.
The father could not disguise his dislike of Max. The four-legged tangle of dirty hair did not much care for the father either, and avoided him like a bad neighborhood. Given his penchant for marking sofas, Christmas trees and bathroom towels, Max had declared himself the alpha male in the home which offended the father. Perhaps in another life, the father and the dog would have been inseparable pack mates. However, in 1970’s suburbia, there could be only one alpha male per household. The father did not appreciate Max’s zeal for leadership and loathed his relentless regularity, his lack of inspiration and his tendency toward promiscuity. He would periodically assert his dominance over the dog by exiling him outside, shoo’ing him out of a room or “nudging” him in the hind quarters — not to injure him but merely to assert his role as the lead dog on the sled.
In dog years, Max was an 18-year-old boy and thus, all his behavior seemed normal to his beloved quartet of young boys. Yet like the teenage boys, the dog was not without guile and premeditation. He had a long memory. In the summer of 1974, alpha dog bested alpha father in an act of pure revenge.
In anticipation of entertaining her husband’s largest advertising client and perhaps helping him achieve a critical promotion, the mother had made the rare and exotic buy of a magnificent Kurdish weave carpet. Given that their household operated on razor-thin margins and was occupied by four destructive boys, the rug was indeed a risky purchase. The children were directed by their mother to not so much as look at the carpet, let alone walk on it. Max did not get the memo.
The day of the all important client dinner arrived. The boys were banished to friends’ houses, with Max chased outside by the anxious father. As the fastidious client and his wife arrived, they chose to walk across the freshly cut front lawn and into the foyer of the immaculate Spanish style home. The front door opened to a foyer fit for a middle eastern sheik. The carpet that in Arabic meant “1000 Flowers” spread across the red-tiled floor in reverent welcome to their most important visitors.
The mother smelled an odd odor as the couples exchanged superficial pleasantries but the smell was quickly overwhelmed by the rush of Mrs. VIP’s strong perfume. Yet this experienced mother of four boys was highly evolved and equipped with extra sensory perception. Something was terribly wrong. As the dinner group moved past her into the home, the mother closed the front door and to her horror, discovered the client and his spouse were now tracking fresh dog poop across the new carpet and throughout the house. Still a neophyte at client politics, she did not dare utter a word to the customers. She could not possibly risk embarrassing her husbands’ biggest client. Instead, she surreptitiously spent the evening shepherding them in and out of rooms and then excuse herself to rush to clean the soiled floors and carpets.
Finally, she could not stand it any more and gently took her husband aside. He looked up and suddenly understood why his wife had acted so peculiar throughout this very important evening. It was not nerves, it was dog feces. He advanced from disbelief to anger and flashed an icy stare out the window to the patio. A filthy mop of a dog sat triumphant in pale light cast from the dining room windows outside, panting and gazing in on the adult dinner party. Revenge was sweet, but contrary to the old saying, it did not smell very good.
It is now years later and like my father, I find myself dancing with wolves. Unlike my Dad, I find something extremely reassuring about living with man’s best friend. My Australian shepherd, Brody, is my confidant and confederate. He is well-known for his ability to keep secrets and to go for extended periods without uttering a word – content to listen to my musings and to reward my insights with a lick and laughing smile.
To be a boy is to have a dog. You are a breed apart — existing for the simplest of things — play, adventure, companionship, love, a warm place to lie down and the occasional secret hand-off underneath the table. As a companion and athlete, my dog gets dispensation for his periodic accidents, biological miscues and lapses in judgement. He looks up at me and seems to be saying, “You, sir, are utterly brilliant. If I had thumbs and a pencil, I would record everything you say.” He, too, smells like of old, wet blankets and the cinnamon scent of lost youth.
“The dog”, a writer once mused, “was created especially for children. He is the God of Frolic”