Monday, August 10, 2009

In Praise of Disobedient Dogs

We called him our Hairy Houdini. An escape artist par excellence, he could get through anything. Fences, locked doors, leashes. Nothing could hold him. I wanted to try him out on Alcatraz, but he would have hated flying.

He celebrated his last day of obedience class by slipping his leash and racing across the marshes of Squantum in Massachusetts, ears flapping, scattering water fowl before him, and trailing an entire herd of humans, all feebly calling, “Come, Thurber! Come!” It took an hour before they caught up with him, muddy and triumphant. They let him graduate anyway. He was just that cute.

Over the years, we perfected opening the door just wide enough to squeeze through – even while holding grocery bags – blocking the opening with our body until we could whisk the door closed. We kept a leash tied to the front door, so we could hook him up before letting guests inside. And still he would shoot out, rear legs churning like egg-beaters. Destination: Canada. We would chase after him, but unless there were children out playing, we didn't have a hope of catching him. Fortunately, our neighborhood was filled with kids, and he would always pause to admire them.

Usually an hour or so after his prison break, we'd get a call. Will Rogers had nothing on Thurber. We met more nice people during his escapades – it's amazing how many folks will go out of their way to help a lost pet. He wandered across main streets and into other people's homes. They were usually happy to make his acquaintance. He had a beautiful set of beagle-brown eyes, and knew how to use them. (Begging is for amateurs. At mealtimes, he would simply make himself available and sit nearby, head either on his front paws or cocked just so.)

At other times, if there was something on the table that looked tasty, he took it. During his first year or so, this included a wood Oaxacan turtle a coworker brought me as a present, a candlestick shaped like a swan that was a wedding gift, and my dad's eyeglasses. (That one still makes me wince.) None of it even gave him a stomach ache. We were sure he was part goat.

He weighed less than 40 pounds, but he could pull harder than Balto on the final stretch to Nome. I got yanked off my feet a number of times during our walks. Add ice, and I was sure to land on my butt by the end of winter. He once was so excited to see a friend of mine (who is rather a cat person), that he leaped up to say hello and knocked her flat on my bed. That bed was also the site of his greatest disgrace. My father-in-law wasn't feeling well one afternoon and went to lay down. Thurber was shocked to find a stranger in the pack bed, and expressed his displeasure in a way that … well, let's just say that my father-in-law is an extremely forgiving man.

It was my fault. My husband's always had cats. The Christmas we were engaged, I got him a young Maine coon cat from a shelter north of Portland. We named him Zeke. But I wanted a beagle, and I wanted to name him Thurber. (James Thurber's New Yorker cartoons featured dogs that were sort of beagly. Yes, I'm an English major. It's incurable. Most of the time, I manage to keep it to myself.)

When we bought our first house in 1996, we celebrated by getting (me) a puppy. He was two months old and fit in the palm of Brian's hand. He promptly peed on him on the car ride home. You can't say he didn't warn us. When we had our son, my mom, who took the longest to see his charms, said we'd probably find raising a child easier than raising Thurber. Barring a few months of toddlerhood, she's been right.

He slept with us from the first night until last winter, when his legs just wouldn't get him onto the bed anymore. I lifted him up and down, but it scared him to be stuck high up. So we made him a bed in the corner of the room, and I mourned my newfound ability to roll over freely without running into a furry body, spread out to take up more room than the laws of geometry would admit possible for a largish small dog.

Despite all the times he swiped the cats' food, Thurber had a fondness for all creatures. (Especially the cats: They were a valuable source of snacks.) 

Once, while walking him past an empty field in Michigan, he stopped stock still and headed into the grass urgently to investigate. I followed him over to what I was sure was going to be a really nasty smell, and found him sniffing gently a small black and white rabbit someone had dumped and wagging reassuringly. (There was a new apartment complex across the street. It turns out they didn't take pets.) When I arrived, he nudged her and looked up at me as if to say, “Well, pick her up. She can't stay here.” Francesca was always a rather timid soul, but she seemed quietly content to live out her days with us and let us keep her in lettuce and other salad ingredients. Even our coon cat let her be, and he considered outside rabbits a menu item and new pets an affront.

Speaking of which, my husband came home with a surprise three years ago. It was 2-1/2 pounds of sneezing white fur (actually two pounds, the half turned out to be fleas). Zeke eyed the newcomer with disdain, cast an outraged gaze at Brian to say, “What you did!” and left the room. Thurber once again sniffed gently and let us know he'd take it from here. He raised the kitten, now bearing the outsized name of G.K. Chesterton (Brian is also an English major. Yes, it's a disease) and instructed it in the ways of petdom. That's not to say he didn't steal his kitten food whenever the opportunity presented itself. But whenever we got home, Thurber and GK would be snuggled together on Thurber's dog bed under the pew in the front hall. He did such a thorough job that the cat goes for walks (although NOT on a leash), racing ahead of Thurber and me with his rocking-horse gait and meowing if he ever loses sight of us. He also comes when he's called, and sometimes you can even get him to fetch. That usually only lasts one or two rounds before he remembers that he's a cat and immediately starts bathing to change the subject.

Thurber even welcomed our newest pets, my son's rats (I know, I should just move to a barn and have done with it. The rats are a long story involving my mom, a baby chipmunk, and a couple of hamsters. I needed something hardier that was less likely to break my son's heart. I know the tails creep people out. I'm over it. Go see “Ratatouille.” No, really. You'll thank me.) GK's reaction was pure cat. He sidled up to Brian, who was wearing the dainty and cream-colored Miss Bianca like a parrot, and eyed her. His meaning was clear: “I don't wish to alarm you, but you seem to have some vermin on your shoulder. If you just want to bend down a little, I'll clear up that infestation for you.” Thurber, on the other hand, wagged happily and regarded them with interest. He even put up with Nate giving Miss Olivia, the brave dumbo, a ride on the beagle. (In my defense, I didn't hear about this until after the fact, and made it clear that she wasn't getting a return trip.)

Miss Olivia, who fancies herself quite the alpha, weighs in at about 12 ounces. She liked to charge the 40-pound dog. Thurber, terrified he was going to step on her, would immediately move out of her way, much to her triumph. (I always pictured her crowing, “I win, I win,” in the voice of the lavender kitten – voiced by the fabulous Eartha Kitt – in “The Emperor's New Groove.”)

So, I'm sure you've noticed the past tense, and you know where this is going. I now can open my front door wide and stand there gazing outside for 10 minutes, and no one barrels past me anymore, ears flapping with the delight of running. He died at home, after a brief illness. We had about a week to say good-bye.

I think I'm doing all right, and then I start crying at odd moments. I started up tonight while making chicken soup. (Thurber always was an eager companion in this chore. It's the first time I've ever cleaned a carcass by myself.) Last week, my brother-in-law asked me what to do with steak scraps left over from a cookout, and I stared blankly at him for a moment, before admitting that the subject just hasn't come up in the last 13 or so years. I finally settled on the disposal. If meat fat is likely to clog or wreck it, could someone please let me know?

Our kitchen trash can is actually in the kitchen for the first time in years, instead of safely locked out on the porch. (Thurber viewed it as his nosh pit.) I hate the sight of it, and want it gone.

So in honor of a great-hearted dog, here's a list of books and movies that feature like-minded canines. Dogs that like to escape, although usually for good reason. Dogs that befriend birds and small children (but who cannot be trusted around chicken pies). Happy endings are a must. Don't talk to me about “Sounder,” or “Where the Red Fern Grows” or “Old Yeller.” Yes, they are acknowledged classics of children's lit, and I'm not going to be able to read them again, possibly ever. It's a darned good thing we already saw “Marley and Me,” because that's also on the not-going-there-for-a-while list. Jon Katz writes wonderful books about dogs, but again, there's the crying thing. That said, I liked “Izzy and Lenore” very much.

  1. “Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School,” Mark Teague. That last week, Nate read to him every night, while Thurber rested his head on my knee. This was the first book Nate chose. Toothy, misunderstood chicken-pie connoisseur Ike LaRue had a sense of drama any beagle would appreciate. He also knows how to escape with style.

  2. “The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog,” John Erickson. The head of Ranch Security is “four legs, a tail, a couple of ears, a pretty nice kind of nose that the women really go for, two bushels of hair and another half-bushel of Mexican sandburs.” Whether he's facing off against skunks across his owner's clean laundry or out-singing coyotes, Hank is a legend in his own mind. Unbreakable rule: Anyone reading this book aloud must drawl. The idea is to sound like a combination of Tommy Lee Jones, Clint Eastwood, and Owen Wilson. Only less self-aware.

  3. The Halloweiner, Dav Pilkey. This was the second of Thurber's bedtime stories. It involves a dachshund, a hot dog costume, and a lot of Halloween treats. Candy and hot dogs? A winning combination in my dog's mind. One Easter, he found the candy I'd hidden for my son in the spare-room closet and ate everything except the jelly beans and the crème eggs. (The crème eggs, it turned out, were disgusting, and no one ate them. My dog knew food.) The fact that we didn't lose him then I attribute to his cast-iron stomach and fervent prayer.

  4. “Snoopy Come Home,” Charles Schulz. 'Nuff said. Also, “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” “It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Ooh, and the Thanksgiving special where Snoopy makes everybody toast, popcorn, and jelly beans, and nearly gets taken out by a lawn chair. Basically, I'm going to need a lot of Snoopy for a while.

  5. “The Incredible Journey,” Sheila Burnford. Funny, my dog was always heading in the opposite direction....

  6. “The 101 Dalmatians,” Dodie Smith. Forget the live-action Disney movies. (Really. Glenn Close will thank you. She's a fine actress and deserves better. And no one should ever have to wear heels like that.) The book by Dodie Smith may be a little old-fashioned for today's kids, but it still makes me happy. And the original animated movie, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman is 79 minutes of wonderful.

  7. “Lad, a Dog,” Albert Payson Terhune. If all you know about collies is “What's that you say? Timmy is stuck in the well?” try Terhune's wonderful story. It's a classic, and with good reason.

  8. “Feed the Kitty,” Chuck Jones. Bulldog Marc Antony is completely smitten with his tiny black and white kitten, and goes to great lengths to hide her from his owner, who told him he couldn't bring “one more thing” into her house. Cleo likes to fall asleep by kneading her claws into poor Marc Antony's back until she's comfy, which always reminds me of GK and Thurber. How great is this animated short? In “Monsters, Inc.,” there's what I would bet is almost a shot-for-shot homage. Check out the scene where Sulley thinks Boo has been crushed by the trash compactor, and then watch “Feed the Kitty,” where Marc Antony, who has hidden his beloved in the flour, believes she's been turned into cookies.

  9. “My Dog Skip,” Willie Morris. Either the memoir or the very fine movie starring Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, and Frankie Muniz. I won't be joining you for the movie, but I remember both fondly. (For feline lovers, Morris was an equal-opportunity pet owner. “My Cat Spit McGee” is also well worth your time.)

  10. “The Dog That Bit People,” James Thurber. Because it's hysterical, and because it's necessary.

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