Why Dogs Matter
Many years ago I asked my mother if she would like me to get her a trailer cat, as a pet, companion and mouser. (She'd never have to feed it.)
Her unprintable response suggested she wasn't quite ready.
So I brought my own cat (Puddie) over to her place.
Mom melted like butta.
Puddie - fat, immobile, soft as a feather pillow and producing a hypnotic purrrrrr - had mom eating out of the pads of her paws.
That lasted about 10 minutes.
I should have brought her a dog.
Nearly 40% of U.S. households own at least one dog, according to the Humane Society - that's over 77 million Busters, Maggies, Smokies, Cocos, Obamas, and Hooches.
How much do we love our dogs?
Yesterday's Des Moines Register featured a story (page 3A) about a recent AP/Petside.com poll of American pet owners which shows a sizeable chunk (14% of married, 25% of unmarried) would choose their dog over their significant other.
Dogs are not surprised by these findings.
The numbers make sense to most of us humans, too; we get married because we don't want to be alone, because we want to be loved unconditionally and because we want someone to grow old with - sooo...
It has always worked out with me and dogs.
I grew up in the western suburbs of Cambridge, on a hobby farm (one pig, one chicken, one horse, one pitchfork, one acre) with a lot of dogs.
Two "Toby"'s died before I had enough brain folds to be able to recall riding them (I was told), although I distinctly remember riding overtop of their unmarked graves with a lawn mower, much later on.
Mitzi joined our clan in 1974; the black and brown chihuahua barked a lot, pooped a lot, got pregnant a lot (by Prince, the neighbor's slutty Pomeranian) and survived a lot of M and M's, which we fed to her every Christmas ("Mitzi want a present, too?")
I remember finding "some panty hose" underneath her one day, as she lay on the couch. I told my grandmother, who informed me, "That is Mitzi's baby." This was my first experience with the miracle of birth, that we all start out as a pair of Leggs.
23 puppies and 12 years later, Mitzi had had enough. She walked to the end of the hallway, laid down and died. This was my first experience with how much it sucks to die.
She'd be the last one to go that easy.
Empress Moko Meling (her registered AKC name; we just called her Nikki) was accidentally run over by our next door neighbor on Christmas Day, 1975. I watched that next summer as another Nikki, this one a mutt, was lured into the back of a slowly passing pickup truck by a town drunk, who snapped her neck and tossed her lifeless body over the side, and into our yard. I can still remember dragging her by the back feet into the backyard, feeling ashamed that I could not bring myself to actually pick up her body. Later on I found Rex, another un-purebred, in a nearby ditch, a victim of a hit and run.
We didn't put much stock in training. Or invisible fencing. Or a chain.
I got to make my own doggie rules when I got my first radio job (KKRL in Carroll), in 1989. Barfy was nuthin but a pound dog, so named because she threw up on me as I took her home.
I lived in a dark, dinky efficiency, and was always at the radio station. When I did come was home, I was lonely, homesick and depressed, and had no idea how to take care of a dog, let alone myself.
I took it out on her.
I didn't kennel train Barfy or even keep her in one, so she went all over the floor. I'd come home, find the mess, yell, pick her up, yell into her face, throw her back down, yell some more while I kicked the side of the bed. She'd cower underneath it until the storm subsided, then eventually come out, lick my hand and try to tell me she forgave me and that everything would be alright, in the way dogs do. One day I kicked her. I took her back to the shelter a week later, before it got worse.
The years ahead would be full of much kicking.
Today my mind knows that Barfy found the warm arms of a loving owner, and forgot about our dark days together. My heart has a looong memory.
Things were "looking up" in 1990, when my mother died and left me $200,000 in inheritance money.
I decided to stop being an animal abuser, and start being a chick magnet - by buying a Chrysler Lebaron convertible, and two dachshunds.
Mission accomplished: women loved the car, and the wiener dogs.
They (Boz and Wally) decided they could tolerate me; they would be my nearly constant companions for the next 16 years.
They were the Odd Couple; Boz (short for Brian Bozworth, of NFL fame) was small (the runt of his litter) and smart (He'd fetch a stick). Wally (short for walrus) was fat (like his owner) and dumb (He'd watch a stick sail over his head).
The three of us lived at Washington Heights Apartments, a West Des Moines apartment complex that did allow pets, but would have preferred that I not allow mine to run free around the neighborhood while I watched TV, ran errands and came back, expecting them to be sitting by the front door, waiting to greet me.
One day someone knocked, holding Boz and Wally. "I found them walking down the 35th street entrance ramp onto I-235 (eastbound - probably a lunch date in the city)." That was a mile from home - not bad!
I still have no idea how the person knew that the dogs - who were wearing pink flea collars and nothing else - belonged to me.
The three of us were unemployed, bored, rich and had time to kill.
We also killed it by driving everywhere, anywhere, all summer long, with the top down, until they smelled like boiled wienerschnitzel and I looked like I'd witnessed a hydrogen bomb blast.
We'd stay up till 3am watching HBO, and munching on pizza, then roll out of bed around Noon and finish it.
I wrote a script and shot a movie on VHS (now gone, alas) in which Boz and Wally played POW's (Prisoners of Wright) while I portrayed an evil prison guard. In this thriller, Boz deftly throws a kitchen steak knife, (Germans are expert with weapons), striking me in the heart, then picks the jail cell lock, allowing he and his brother to escape.
Bozzie, the alpha dog, would constantly be trying to induce Wally into play-fighting, while Wal-ass was very content to lay by me, wherever me was. Occasionally Boz would get his bigger and younger brother to do battle, and Wally, 5 pounds heavier, would flatten him like a bowling ball taking out a pin, then jump back into my lap.
I'd had mixed results kennel training them but finally had a breakthrough; I sent them to live with my girlfriend's mother in Texas while I traveled around the country, working at radio stations. After a year I brought them with me to WJHR in Flemmington, New Jersey, where I talked the owners into letting the three of us literally live at the radio station, which was situated on six acres of beautiful rolling prairie grass, bordered by timber, inside Hunterdon County, which has the highest deer population in the country.
At the turn of the century, and now back in Iowa, we had our most memorable moment together.
It was just before midnight, December 31st, 1999 - Y2K. Boz and Wall and I sat on the back porch of a house I rented by Four Mile Creek, a few blocks off East Euclid.
It was cold outside but not unbearably so. The wind was calm; the air was still. Then in the distance, we began to hear firecrackers, and the occasional gun fire. The dogs ears twitched in all directions; they were on high alert. I brought them into my lap and ran my hands gently along their backs. We waited for the end of the world.
Bozzie's would end, for real, four months later in a vet's office, after a short bout with lymphatic cancer. He was 11. Wally would live another six years, until succumbing to kidney failure at the ripe old age of 16.
I dug a hole on an acreage in Fort Dodge where I lived at the time; I placed the box that held Wally's body into the hole, filled it back in with dirt, scattered Doritos (His favorite) and roses on it, then knelt down and looked at the spot where he lay, for a long time.
I thought about the butcher lady who used to give him and his brother, hunks of bologna, and the way they'd growl but never bite if I reached for their supper while they were eating it. I remembered the way they'd howl if I howled first, and chasing them with the vacuum cleaner, and holding them like babies, and feeling like I had never loved two living things so much, or felt so loved in return.
Today, another dog does: Tater. I have written several stories about Tater. I wonder what he writes on his own dog blog, which he works on, at night, under the bed, I'm quite certain. I sometimes peek down and try to catch him, but he's always too fast for me, and pretends to be asleep.
There is a gentle peace that comes from looking into the eyes of a dog you love, and knowing that the dog loves you more than you could ever love yourself. In that way, dogs are like God.
Honestly? I think they really are.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.
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