Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Good Dogs

Until we got our dog Britt, I had a harsh Darwinian theory about how to tell a good dog from a bad one. As I saw it, the best canine achievement took place in 1925 in Alaska when relays of noble dog teams brought diptheria serum over a thousand miles to Nome, to save the children from an epidemic. Could YOUR dog brave blizzards, shattered ice floes, fight off polar bears? Could he save the children, or not? He couldn't?

Tough, pal. My Skipper could have gotten the serum to Nome on his head, smiling all the way.

I grew up with Skipper. He was a large, stunningly handsome border collie, with the wisdom of a Yoda. I didn't have to bother with kindergarten. Everything I needed to know, I learned from Skipper. In many family photos, guests are standing around looking at him admiringly. As I recall, they were saying things like, "What a great dog!" "Where can I get a dog like that?" and even "Why do you get the best dog? Why not me?"

Many years passed. Skipper went up to Good Dog Valhalla. And one summer afternoon, we bought a tiny shetland sheepdog puppy. She could easily fit in my hand. She would have been outweighed by a dinner roll. Yet she already had a massively well-developed vision of herself as Crown Princess Britt.

Her reign began a few minutes after we bought her. For the ride home, I'd brought a frayed old towel for her to rest on (and pee on, if need be). She looked at it in horror. "This crummy rag?" she was plainly thinking. "Why, I wouldn't touch it with BORROWED puke. Is this any way for my subjects, I mean owners, to treat the darling little sheepdog?"

She quickly noticed, however, that I was wearing a beautiful Scottish wool shawl. In fact, the shawl cost so much that it was accompanied by literature to persuade chumps to buy it. A brochure on slick paper informed me that the wool was "harvested from happy sheep, bathed in the silken, sparkling waters of Loch Lomond, woven by cottagers dedicated to their ancient craft."

When Britt nudged the shawl with her cheek, she began jumping up and down, yipping ecstatically. "Oh, thank God, they got it right after all. Happy wool that cost an arm and a leg,what could be more appropriate for adorable me?" Firmly overcoming my feeble struggles to keep my prize, she nestled in its folds, sighing with relief.

So I gave up the shawl. When we got home, she indicated with certain averted glances and delicate hesitations that she considered the puppy kibble inferior. By that time, it seemed completely natural to rush off to buy this graceful little creature the finest shaved deli beef and tender niblets of peachfed ham, luxuries which the humans in the household had never ventured to buy for themselves.

Things went on like that. And in the years that followed, unkind friends would sometimes ask me where Britt would fall in the mushing-the-serum-to-Nome scale. I'd answer that it was only Britt's body that was small; in spirit, she was an unstoppable Amazonian Goddess Queen. I would tell these doubters that I could easily see her standing on top of the rushing dog sled like a tiny lion, keeping the serum warm with her royal shawl. Her ears would be up and her dark eyes outshining the whiteout storms, and throughout the long days and nights she would never rest as she kept everybodies' spirits up by yapping lustily all the way to Nome.


  1. I enjoyed reading this piece about two dogs, but actually I guess it's about the relationship of each dog with you. In reading about animals it's that space between dog and human is the most interesting thing for me.

  2. Isn't it amazing how we still live in denial about the fact that it's dogs who own us and not vice versa?

    Thank you for your kind comment on my blog! :-)

  3. What a great story. I was always a cat person since my adventures tend to lean toward exploration of ancient jungle temples and cats are remarkably good companions if one wants to avoid the ravages of undead gaurdians. Your dog reminds me of that dog in "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" when his worth and value was unquestioned and he got the first piece of the rare roast beast.

  4. Yes, our Britt wore a little SAP (Sheltie American Princess) tiara her whole life, but we were goofily happy as her serfs and gladly surrendered those pieces of exquisite roast beef.

    I understand the passion of Cat People, though. Cats are so powerful and beautiful, and (you're right) would make great defenders!