My Dog’s Dogs
Chance, my elderly Belgian sheepdog, lost his companion dog, Bopp, another type of Belgian shepherd, when I got too weak to handle such a high-spirited large pet. Through no fault of his own, Bopp precipitated some falls I might not otherwise have suffered, so I reluctantly re-homed him with his original owner. She was glad to have him back, and he resides in a puppy paradise complete with woods, a creek, a loving owner and his whole extended Tervuren family. This isn’t one of those “went to live on a farm where he can run” myths.
But Chance, in the meantime, did not fare so well. We both missed Bopp terribly but, deprived of his pal, Chancey moped, seemingly aging overnight. The only dog I’ve ever known who was a picky eater, the poor old boy refused food no matter how much cheese—his favorite—I spiked his kibble with to tempt him. I felt guilty and tried to hook him up with a mature shelter dog, Max, a Border collie mix who was, by all appearances, a very likeable, well-mannered and calm individual, just right to be Chance’s new mate. But Max’s apparent demeanor was deceiving; he viciously added injury to insult by attacking Chance, who was completely taken by surprise, only wanting to be friends like the social guy he is. After permanently crippling Chance’s right hind knee, I summarily sent Mad Max packing right back to the no-kill shelter that’d had him so long. (Wonder why?) But he was bathed, groomed, flea-dosed and loved up for a while, better off than he started.
Then Chance was worse off than ever. I had to do something.
So I started from scratch. I got Chance a pair of Border collie puppies, Dickens and Twain. I didn’t think this was such a bad idea. With Chance closing in on his natural span of years, I thought it would be good to acquire some “spare” dogs. That way, I figured, if one died, there’d be others and my heart would not be so crushed. (Note: This is a totally misguided concept. Just do your animal math to find out how dumb this is. Love isn’t a matter of division; it’s multiplication. Your heart can’t live without any pet; getting more just multiplies the inevitable heartache of loss.)
In any event, Chance wasn’t so sure about the tiny clueless new canine additions to the household at first. Yet he soon developed an interest. Chance found a renewed purpose in life, and that was to ride herd on these ungainly and ignorant little creatures, to instruct them in approved ways of doing and show them what’s what.
Chance is a very rigorous disciplinarian with his impudent pups. So that kind of leaves me out of the loop. Here I thought these puppies would be mine. But no; there’re Chance’s. Chance calls the shots. I just provide the kibble and pay the vet bills. Oh, yeah, and house-training. Chance wasn’t very helpful at heading off problems during that process, though he was disapproving and did bring my attention to breeches of bowel protocol. And, while he undoubtedly knew who the offender was, he didn’t communicate that information to me. Dimwitted human as I am, I can’t differentiate between turds and their originators as dogs can, unless I see the transgression in progress. It wasn’t until the puppies were four or five months old that they got “the ask” down pat and became dependably continent in the house. I’m glad of that—for the obvious reasons, of course—but also because I sure felt silly gushing “good potty!” whenever the little dudes got it right.
Actually, Chance isn’t that great about in-house infractions of many sorts. For example, he has long since lost his keenest affinity for cat poo. That’s not to say he wouldn’t still be opportunistic if a clear opening offered, but I’m pretty tight on my restrictions. The cats currently have their own suite of rooms, with a cat-flap entrance to their private poopatorium that’s too small for more than only the head of a dog. Long gone are the days when I’d wonder if I’d come up with some kind of miraculous self-cleaning litter box, only to discover Chance’s godawful breath and cat-litter-speckled nose.
Despite my precautions, Dickens and Twain entertain a lively enthusiasm for cat excrement. Their only interaction with it is when I’ve cleaned the cat boxes and am carrying the pee- and poo-filled bag downstairs and outside to the trash. Being Border collies, they can jump incredibly high, so I hold the bag as far aloft as possible. Yet they treat it as a goodie-filled piñata they’re striving to burst. Once in a while—when I’m particularly groggy before my morning coffee—they’ll succeed in gaining their prize, which is an ecstatic achievement for them, while less than pleasant in its cleanup consequences for me.
I’ve been reading a lot of studies about the physiology and history of dog behavior and it is remarkable to see patent pack dynamics playing themselves out in my own household. The hugest thing I learned was about the primeval pattern of canine behavior involving face-licking. The accepted theory is that puppies do this with adult dogs for two reasons: First, to stimulate elders to regurgitate food for them—which is never going to happen. Secondly, as a deferential act of appeasement. I buy that premise, having frequently witnessed Dickens and Twain doing a sort of lion tamer’s act with Chance, vying to stick their heads in his open mouth. They also used to dribble out a little submissive pee at the same time they groveled. Thank goodness they outgrew that charmless habit.
But the Border collies, now nearly a year old, still go for the face when it comes to perceived pack superiors. They don’t have as far to go with Chance—they don’t even have to leave the ground to lick his muzzle—but they have a lot farther to go with me, an upright being. Unfortunately, they’ve attained the ability to leap straight up to my face, and that face-licking thing must be hard-wired. I’m guessing that’s why the first command we worked on—“DOWN!”—is the biggest command we’re still working on. They’ve learned all kinds of other commands, some very subtle, not even verbal, composed of looks, slight hand gestures or body stance. And I know they know what “down!” means (we’ve certainly been over it often enough throughout their entire lives), but they just can’t seem to help themselves. They want to obey, but some kind of instinctual auto-pilot overrules that desire. Whenever they see me coming in a separate section of the yard, they immediately start jumping up and down behind the gate as frenetically as kernels of popcorn in hot grease. Thank goodness I now have multiple pairs of eyeglasses and had the foresight to get the other two sets repaired when I was again down to just one cockeyed pair.
It was my friend Elwood—who originally went with me to pick out a puppy and talked me into bringing home two—that pointed out the irony in the fact that I reluctantly gave up one dear dog who accidentally proved to be a menace to my fragile health and replaced him with TWO! Doh! I love a quirk of fate when it happens to someone else or as a plot point for a story, but I purely hate when irony happens to me!
Another paradox of this mouth-licking situation is that the only household members whose mouths the puppies don’t go for are each other’s (though they get plenty of mouth-to-mouth action during the course of their frequent biting games) and the cats’. Dickens and Twain pay a lot more attention to the cats’ other ends. This is strange because Stella, the elderly Siamese, is the only one who does puke with alarming regularity, most recently overnight in my shoes. That kind of blows the regurgitation mouth-licking theory espoused by dog-behavior scientists. Unless cat vomit simply isn’t the “good” kind in the puppies’ book. Who can say why they pass up such a recurrent “opportunity”? I’m certainly no connoisseur; to me, puke’s puke—all equally distasteful, a mess to purge the house of ASAP.
Then there’s the pack hierarchy. I’ve never been part of a three-dog pack before, though I’ve always had two dogs, feeling the need every decade or so to acquire a new one for the grieving survivor when his companion dog died. So it came as a bit of surprise to me that these dogs would have to arrange a three-way status. I had not anticipated this but, in retrospect given my research, it seemed unavoidable.
Chance, of course, is the boss dog, being much bigger, older and wiser. His authority is unchallenged. As Chance goes, so goes the pack. But who would be his second in command? I thought dog status would sort itself out naturally, though my good friend and neighbor Yvonne—another long-time dog person—predicted there would be blood in the course of the hierarchical shakedown. But if that happened, I totally missed it because Chance appointed his own successor, favoring him and shunning his brother. Almost from the outset, Twain was the Chosen One. Poor Dickens got left in the dust, a beta all the way.
I suppose every master has an understudy, just like Leonardo DaVinci or any other outstanding genius in his field, and Chance chose his. Twain follows doggedly in Chance’s footsteps, alert, paying attention and prepared to do Chance’s bidding at a moment’s notice. And Chance, getting on the decrepit side of life, uses Twain to scout things out for him and report back, so he can make the important security decisions (which Twain and, to a lesser extent, Dickens, hasten to implement). The little boys go point for Chance, much in the manner of a skirmishing party. And Chance can tell, from the comfort of his shady wallow, what Twain’s bark indicates.
If it’s a woodchuck, Chance runs over and dispatches it with a neck bite and quick head shake. If it’s trespassers, Chance gallops down into the woods and runs them off. (This is a good division of labor because while Twain—and Dickens, to a lesser extent—acts as fearsome as possible, intruders respond to the sight of the Border collies by saying things like, “Oh, look at the cute puppies!” whereas Chance provokes comments of “It’s a mad wolf! RUN!”)
I’m sure this is actually quite a fine transitional system. Still, I can’t bear the thought of dear Mr. Chancey-pants (a truly once-in-a-lifetime dog) dying, but the clock is really ticking on the old boy. Perhaps he knows that, and is grooming Twain to step into his shoes to keep the homeland safe in the future. If so, it’s sure working.
So here’s the current line-up, with the youngsters just about a year old. I watched the dogs work a squinny (little striped ground-squirrel) in the confines of the car park today. If they were a baseball team, Chance would be the coach/batter. Twain would be the pitcher and Dickens would be the short-stop. Chance and Twain ran the rodent between them, with Dickens behind Twain, deflecting the squinny and keeping it in play if it got past Twain. Twain finally snagged it and quickly passed it to Chance. I don’t know what became of it, though I’m sure I’ll find out.
But here’s the curious thing: Twain rarely lords his elevated status over Dickens. Mostly, they’re still the same, equal siblings. Equal in play, certainly, neither taking advantage of the other, no matter how wild they get. They both retain that total puppy ability to roll well and tumble each other often. I’m still amazed that neither of them has ever gotten hurt with their roughhousing or even drawn a drop of blood. The only time there’s contention is when they’re trying to herd something—a bicyclist, a car, a street cleaner or garbage truck—through the fence, running back and forth, back and forth, barking like frenzied maniacs. They have long since run roughshod over the perennial flowers I had lining the fence, and reduced that formerly lovely foliage to a hard-packed dirt track. Yet, no matter how many times they repeat the exercise, they inevitably collide. And that’s when Twain wails on Dickens. That’s where the dominance factor shows. It looks and sounds horrible (so much yiping!), but there’s never been an injury and the moment’s forgotten as soon as it’s passed, in favor of resuming pursuit of the distraction at hand. I haven’t read anything in the dog books about that, but I’m sure it’s a thing.
I am pleased to see Dickens and Twain taking after Chance in other ways. They’re so smart—too smart—and such excellent mimics. Twain, in particular, is adopting many of Chance’s mannerisms. Whisper-barking, for instance. Chance is an expert at such low-key annoyance, very effective at getting his way. Every night, we all troop up to bed and lay in our places. Come morning, Twain is antsy to get up and has discovered the exact right way to come in under my radar in order to rouse me: by barking without making a sound aside from that of his jaws opening and snapping shut, emitting only the pale ghost of a bark. (Well, that, and Moxie starts working over my face at the same time, patting it with his big mitt and biting on my nose to alert me to the fact that he thinks his food bowl—while not empty—needs refilled, in his informed opinion. I wouldn’t put it past the fiendishly clever dog and cat to be working in concert toward their common goals.)
The puppies are always referencing Chance and me. You can tell they’re itching to do something, but they’ve got to clear it with the authority figures first. “What do you think about this?” “Is that OK?” They look at the object of their desire, then look the question back to us. Chance and/or I (sometimes at odds) give them the go-ahead or put the kibosh on their urges. And it’s probably customary for dogs living in a pack with a human to know one another’s names, because they clearly do. This is a very handy ability, particularly when it comes to calling them all inside. If only one or two answer my summons right away, I ask him/them to go get the straggler(s), referred to by name. He/they immediate run back out and return with the missing pack members, even if malingerers are way down in the woods attending to some serious project.
Only Dickens and Twain are related (litter mates). Yet, due to the puppies’ wish to please and imitate Chance, as well as the similarity of herding breeds in general, all three dogs exhibit a closer familial relationship than mere proximity could explain. It’s almost as if traits are being passed down between generations. Dickens, for example, inherited Chance’s butt-sniffing proclivity. And I think he, too, can detect the presence of illness in my body even before I can. If they get too engrossed in that region of my body, I know I’m in for health issues.
Dickens shares the same interest in books that Chance had in his younger days, though their tastes are different. Chance went exclusively for non-fiction, while Dickens is into literary fiction. (Though he recently started in on reference books. Dickens still can’t, however, consume an entire unabridged dictionary in one sitting, no matter how voracious a “reader” he is.)
But Dickens is a sneak thief. He didn’t get that from Chance, who never snitched portables even when young, preferring instead to gnaw on heirloom furniture. Ink pens are a common casualty around Dickens. One day I was certain I’d left my black ink pen on the table, but I just couldn’t find it. The mystery didn’t last long, though; that little dickens jollied up to me, his black tongue lolling and front legs bearing black markings where he was born with white.
Dickens also goes for plastic water bottles, glass beer bottles (the fuller, the better to that little would-be lush—who’s not old enough to drink, even in dog years), guests’ cigarette packages (good thing he can’t work matches, though he chews them up, too), hats, etc.
Just yesterday I made the fatal mistake of leaving my cell phone unguarded. I recovered it, but it was a great deal worse for wear, cracked, with teeth marks all over it. All I can say about that is Motorola makes a damn durable product. To borrow from the old Timex slogan, “It takes a licking (and a chewing) and keeps on ticking.”
But what can I do? Dickens and Twain aren’t my dogs; they’re my dog’s dogs. Chance simply has to teach them to behave better. I’m sure he will, if God grants him the time. Remarkably, he’s brought them this far in less than a year. And they are, after all, very young. There’s still hope.
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