Thursday, May 8, 2008

Ode to a Good Dog


Thirteen years ago, when my son was three years old and I was a single mother who had recently moved across the country and was trying to get my art business off the ground, I decided I needed to further complicate my life.

My housemate, son, and I went to the Berkeley Humane Society, “just to see.”

Since my son was still a pup himself, I wanted him to grow up with a littermate. There were two puppies at the Human Society that day: a darling silky black collie-mix with a white chest and a jaunty air; and a curly brown dog with long lanky legs, curled up shivering in a corner. The black pup already had two admirers, but the brown dog, I was told, was the last (read: “runt”) of a litter of five puppies that were left at night on the steps of the Human Society. She was labeled as “some sort of lab mix” (I was later told that at the pound, every dog is either a “lab mix”, “collie mix,” or “shepherd mix”); and they gave her an approximate age of six weeks.

She was trembling and wild-eyed like a junkie on the second day of rehab. We fell in love.

We named her Sam after my son’s favorite book at the time, Sam-I-Am. Throughout her life people would assume her full name was Samantha, but she was really plain old Sam.

She didn’t stop trembling for two days…but she started to eat. And eat. And to grow at an astonishing, worrying rate. We had been told that Sam would be about thirty-five pounds at full maturity; at this rate, she’d turn out to be more on the scale of a Great Dane. Our bungalow was 900 square feet, with a postage-stamp-sized yard. We lived in fear.

Most days we took her to the nearby park, where a number of neighborhood dog owners gathered in the evenings to let their dogs run. Like most dogs, Sammy loved to run. She ran with wild abandon, silky wavy brown ears flopping over her velvety head, long pink tongue lolling to the side. Soon a pack of adult dogs started running behind her, chasing her around the field not in anger, but joy. And lust. Sammy was in heat.

Apparently, Sam and her siblings had been starved over a long period of time. She wasn’t six weeks old, she was six months. Her remarkable growth rate was more a catch-up than an indication of things to come. Though she grew to about fifty pounds, at least she wasn’t the horse we’d feared she’d become in those first months.

However, she never lost her love, her adoration, her deep personal longing and desire for food. Any kind of food, with the possible exception of certain vegetables and unbuttered popcorn. She loved her people, sure, but food…she had something of a doggy eating disorder.

She adored children, especially my son and his friends, because she soon learned that little boys drop crumbs with alacrity. Any possible nutritional source that hit the floor was gone. Anything left on the coffee table was gone. And once or twice, particularly tempting items –like an entire barbecued chicken—left on the table or kitchen counter…gone. Food.

Sam’s coat was a deep chocolaty brown everywhere but her white chest, and a white bullseye right under her tail. One of her nicknames was “brown dog”; she was, indeed, very brown. As she aged, she stayed curly on top but grew out long feathers on her tail and haunches, like an Irish Setter. On walks people constantly stopped and asked, “what kind of dog is that?” Some guessed Chesapeake Bay Spaniel mix; some guessed Chocolate Lab mix. As time went on, I cast my vote with “some sore of Irish Setter mix”, not only because of her longish snout and flamboyant feathers, but because she was dumb. I mean really dumb. Not a whole lot going on upstairs.

I’ve loved mutts my whole life, and they’ve always been so smart that I assumed the mixing of the breeds naturally resulted in intelligent animals. But Sam proved that theory false. She was an elegant-looking, sweet tempered, dim bulb. She would lie down, long legs pointed out regally in front of her, head held proudly aloft, and look as though she should be featured in an oil painting hung with pride of place above the mantel of an English manor. Then you would call her name and her head would loll toward you, her soft brown eyes looking up with adoration and…nothing much else. Food?

At one point a very clever dog from across the street, Max, showed Sam how to break out of our fenced yard. The two would trot happily about the neighborhood, until Max-the-escape-artist would break back into his house for dinner. Sam, though, couldn’t find her way back into the yard. We’d find her sitting on the front porch, waiting to be let in, and watching squirrels.

She may have been missing a few intelligence genes, but she got more than her fair share of personality. To be kind, she was quirky; weird might be closer to the truth. She wasn’t particularly dog-like. She hated riding in cars. She couldn’t see the point of running after balls. Frisbees were dull. She’d pull on a toy with you if you insisted, but once you dropped it, she dropped it. By and large she disdained other dogs, and though she was friendly enough the truth was that she didn’t care that much for people, either.

However, she was devastatingly, fanatically attracted to squirrels. We moved into a house with a huge yard and she was in canine heaven. She was capable of sitting at the base of a tree for hours, talking to a squirrel, tracking its movements with her eyes, occasionally trying to climb the tree herself. Squirrel! Her whimpers and whines broke out into ear-piercing shrills from time to time when she could no longer keep the excitement to herself.

She would bark fanatically when her people arrived home, for to her barking was a form of discussion. She’d hop around, still barking, and then run the other way, ostensibly to show you she was on the job, patrolling the perimeter of her territory. If you danced, or sang, or had a loud discussion, or ran, or wrestled in a playful way, she would bounce around you stiff-legged, and bark. She barked at friends and neighbors as well as the postal carrier and the UPS guy and the prowler. Few could tell her friendly bark from her fierce bark – all of which were surprisingly shrill and high-pitched for a dog of her girth.

She had one special bark particularly beloved by the neighbors: the “rooster crow”. She let out a bark that sounded exactly like a rooster crowing, usually signaling that someone was at the gate or – even worse—the front door. God forbid anyone ring the doorbell. Later she used “single bark” whenever she wanted to be let in from outside. Short and sweet, rather polite, she would let out one, single, distinct bark. Hello? If you didn’t open the door, she’d wait exactly four minutes. Another bark. Hi? Four minutes later, another bark in exactly the same tone. Let me in! She was relentless.

Another dear love was cats. I know a lot of dogs chase cats, but Sam loved cats. She loved chasing them, but she also loved just sitting and watching them. Her lifelong desire was to be able to lick a cat without it squirming away. She had an unrequited love affair with Midgie, a black and white cat from next door. She yearned for Midgie; if she would have been able, she would have written poems to Midgie. She would sit and look through the metal gate at Midgie for hours, leaving only to ride herd on squirrels. Cat.

Our next-door neighbors, Midgie’s humans, were board members of our local SPCA. I’m sure that’s why Sammy lived as long as she did. Their house was like Sam’s Funhouse. They often left their front door open, and if Sam was out of the gate she’d trot right inside, eat the cat food that was just lying there, unguarded, obviously they didn’t want it, and it was sooooooo good. Then she would chase the cats –for Midgie was one of several—up the stairs and down the stairs, through bedrooms and living rooms. One must understand that when fifty pounds of brownness is barreling through one’s home, things get broken. Food. Cat.

As she aged, her brownness mellowed, and even ceded to white in spots. Eventually her whole muzzle and her expressive, elastic eyebrows were snowy-white. She stopped chasing squirrels, and toward the end, even stopped barking. But she never lost her love for food. Laying on her side, not enough energy even to rouse herself, she was still happy to eat the expensive steak we fed her. To the bitter end, the old gal was fond of a good meal. Or three. She never stopped eating. Food.


Sophie said...

Oh, darlin....sending you lots of hugs. I loved reading about sweet Sam. I'm sure dog heaven is a happy place tonight, welcoming her in...

Vickie said...

{{HUGS}} Thank you for sharing your Sam with us.

©Hotbutton Press said...

Anything new and exciting? Like new books coming out soon?

AnnaC said...

Thanks for the comments!!! Yes, there's a new series coming out...I'm trying to catch up with my posts, and there will be one about the new series in the next day or two.

cesonia said...

Thank you for sharing your Sam. Our Bear is like her in many ways, except he is too smart for his own good, and usually using it to figure out how to get the roast off the table when no one is looking... or the candy bar out of my son's pocket (have I mentioned he is 12, and has candy bars in ALL his pockets?. Keep writing, even this blog about Sam was wonderful to read, I smiled, chuckled and totally pictured every antic in my mind.