The Dog Explains (or Why I Ate the Chocolate Cake)

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Dear Big Female,

Look, I know you got really mad at me a couple of days ago, when I leaned up on the kitchen counter and took a bite out of the cake the young male had just finished baking, but you know, I just couldn’t help myself. See, it had been a tough day in the dog world. It was that day after the two days when all you people are around, coming and going, zinging in and out of doors all day long.

After those two days of activity, I’m used to having a day of rest, when I curl up in my white domed house outside and sleep all day. Yeah, it’s kind of depressing, but I’ve gotten used to it. Matter of fact, at this point in my life, I need that day of sleep. And if I get too bored, I get out of my house and run around in circles trying to catching that stump on my backside, just for the hell of it. I haven’t managed to catch it yet. I’ve seen other dogs do it, but it’s easier for them. They have those long droopy sticks on their backsides. I might have had one once too, but I don’t remember.

Our days here usually begin with the opening and closing of doors before I’ve been let out of my crate down in that room with those scary white boxes that bang and hum. Most of the time, you make those machines bang during the day when I’m not in the room, but sometimes at night, after you’ve brought me into that room to go to bed,  the machines are still banging and humming and I see you open the doors on them and move clothes from one to the other. I know these are clothes for everybody because I see them on your bodies on different days, and I’ve figured out which ones you wear for the night when everything in the house gets real quiet. I refuse to get in my own box at night until I see you or that younger female in your night-time clothes. (I know you and she are females because you smell different than those other two, with their shorter hair and harder voices). I figure it this way – I ain’t gettin’ in that box to spend all those dark hours, and some of the light ones too when the air is warmer and the trees have those flat things hanging on them . . . what ARE those flat things anyway? They just look like grey blobs to me.

As I was saying, I’m not gettin’ in that box till I know the house is going to quiet down. And I know the quiet won’t come till you’re in those night clothes. I just hate to think I might miss something, you know. And yeah, sometimes I get funny and refuse to get in the box till it’s YOU who puts me there, not that younger female. Sometimes, I just like to see how much control I have. I’m a dog. I can’t help it.

So anyway, it had been two days of the coming and going. The voices of all of you, the footfalls in and out. First, the door out to that place where you keep those other two big white machines, the ones with the wheels. Those are the machines that come and go, that make creaking noises in the room where my box is. When I hear the first creaks, I know the day is about to begin. After the creaks stop, I wait in my box for awhile, hoping someone will come let me out. If you make me wait too long, I get frantic and scratch at the box, start in with that high-pitched bark that I know will get your attention, until you come to let me out. When you do let me out of the box, though, I just can’t go through the door to the yard right away. I need you to pet me for a while, and I make sure I get you to do that by looking up at you with my pathetic expression and sitting on your foot. You grouse about that, but it almost always works. If it doesn’t, I do my doggie bow – front legs stretched out, head low, tail up. I’ve heard you call it the “downward facing dog” pose and I’ve seen you try to imitate it. Frankly, I can’t figure out why you humans would want to be imitating us dogs; it’s you guys who have all the power.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut back to the day of the cake . . .

After I had been let out of my box, the younger male plonked my breakfast down in that shiny bowl outside the kitchen door, the spot where I spend many hours practicing my sad look through the glass. I had already done my tour of the yard, to make sure no intruders had appeared in my territory while I was in the box. Sometimes, I can tell those puffy gray critters with the stripes on their tails and faces have been snooping around again. They leave behind a nasty fishy smell and they never clean up after themselves. You pulled me away once when I had one up a tree and another time when one was hiding under the deck, but they’re enemies, I tell you. All my barking at them is just my fair warning that they’re on my turf and should expect consequences.

That particular morning, the yard was pretty clear of invasion – just a few slugs headed for the garden and those black things that move through the sky. (Some of you people call them crows, some of you say they’re ravens. Frankly, I don’t care what you call them. I just know they make a lot of noise. Between watching them and those other white ones that sit on top the house dropping clam shells on the driveway, I get a crick in my neck.) But that morning, there was that other male in the house, that tall one with the light hair who’s been coming around recently. He stays real close to the other female. They watch a lot of moving pictures on the screen downstairs, in the dark room with the big couch. I’ve convinced you to let me in the house more often, You older people have gotten older too, gotten some of those light hairs on your heads like I now have on my snout and you’re gettin’ a little soft about where you’ll let me be, especially when I practice my pathetic face through the kitchen door or it starts to rain again, like it does so often here. When you fall for my trick and let me in, I figure it’s wise to be polite and I offer my thanks by stretching out in my down-dog bow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo as I was saying, I’ve convinced you to let me in the house more often. The room where the food is served is my next target. I’ve managed to sneak over there from the kitchen a couple times already. The advantage of being an Aussie is my grace. I may be male, but I am dainty, I tell you. The hard brown floor scares me because I can’t get any traction on it like I can the white tile in the kitchen, but I can tiptoe soundlessly from the kitchen to the rug in the eating area without you even hearing me, especially when my toenails are clipped, like they were at that dog hotel you left me at a couple weeks ago, the one where they got me wet and rubbed foamy stuff all over me. I loved the rubbing, hated the wet stuff, and that scratchy, funny-smelling paste they scrubbed my face with. It makes me itch and then you fuss at me for leaving wads of fur on the downstairs carpet from my scratching. Don’t EVER let them use that stuff on me again.

Besides the outside, I figure it’s my job to watch the intruders in the house too. This new male smells pretty safe. He must hang out with a lot of other interesting animals, dogs among them, and he knows how I like to be pet. But the young female is different when she’s around him. She shows her teeth more and changes the way she walks. She likes it when the new male gets really close to her on the downstairs couch, and especially when they start rubbing their faces together. But I just can’t allow anyone to be touching anyone in this house besides me. I get agitated and just have to speak, which usually stops the touching. I suspect you just might be letting me in the house on purpose when he’s here, just so they won’t be touching.

So there was that male in my territory, and the young male, the one who actually lives here, is always noisier and more active when the other one’s around. They wrestle around sometimes like they’re litter mates trying to determine who’s the alpha dog. That morning, they started playing with the little machine that zips around the floor making a loud whine, a smaller version of those white-wheeled machines that make my room creak. For this, the young male holds some sort of gadget in his hand to direct it. He thinks it’s fun to make the thing chase me, and it hurts when it bangs into my ankles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALater that morning, the three of them were moving around the kitchen cutting up round yellow things (at least I think they were yellow; I’m never too sure of my colors) and squishing the juice out of them with another type of buzzing machine. Then they were banging the dishes around and making tantalizing food smells. And then the big male and female went down to the beach with a couple of puffy shirts and some long sticks. I wanted to go with them to see what they were going to do. You KNOW I hate to miss anything. That’s why I follow you wherever you go, even if it’s back up the stairs you just came down. But this stupid band around my neck, the one with the little box attached to it, started beeping when I got to the edge of the yard, and I knew that, if I didn’t stop, I was going to get zapped like I have sometimes.

I usually stop when I hear the beeping, but sometimes the temptation is just too much to ignore, like the time you and the little male put that smelly food out on the upper lawn, where I’m not supposed to go. It had something to do with a project the young male was doing for school. I knew that if I didn’t get to that food first, those brown things with the thin legs and pointy sticks on their heads would get to it first. The taste of that stuff was well worth the momentary zap.

I also needed to go with the young female and her friend because it’s my job to keep my people together. You know, I get really anxious when you all split up and two of you go off one way while the other two go another. It just feels wrong, and I worry that I’m not doing my job. Like when we ran into that bunch of goats on the beach one day. They were wandering in all different directions, the silly things. I know they didn’t belong to our pack, but y’know, something just came over me and I had to gather them up, get ‘em in a tidy group, even if it meant nipping their ankles. You stood by horrified (after all, who would expect to find goats on a beach?) but the owner of the goats knew what I was doing. HE knew, and didn’t mind.

So when the female went off with her male friend, I got nervous. Things appeared to be spinning out of my control, so I did what I always do when it seems that way, especially when that nasty neighbor comes down the path with his big black and brown dog. It’s not the dog I mind because he and I are of similar mind. It’s that human. There’s something wrong with that male – even the female trainer you hired for me once said so, and I can never know when he might decide to throw stones at me again. Never mind that we both saw him beating his own dog with its own leash in our yard that one day when the dog wouldn’t come after he called it. Or he would prowl around our house with his dog if I wasn’t out barking at him. When he comes down the path to the beach, I run madly along the edge of the lawn and bark and bark and bark. Sure, all the running and barking is exhausting, but in the dog world, things must be kept in order.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell after awhile, I got bored with running and barking while the young female and her friend were down at the beach, and you know that didn’t take too long. You know, I’m a smart dog, smarter than those dumb yellow dogs up the street who spend their days chasing the same ball hour after hour. They’re always just thinking “throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball!” It must drive their people nuts. See, I figured it out pretty quick. If I bring back the ball you’ve thrown, you’re just gonna throw it again, and that’s no fun. I was willing enough to learn “sit” and “down” in that class you took me to, but when you got to telling me “stay,” I thought, “Unh-uh. No way. I ain’t doing this anymore.” First off, if I stay, I’m probably gonna miss something interesting somewhere else. Second, responding promptly to commands just means you’re going to be ordering me around all day. In that case, I might as well be as dumb as those dogs up the street. I may be just a dog, but I have to have SOME dignity.

After I got tired of barking along the lawn’s edge, I came back up to the kitchen door and pulled the usual stunt: park myself outside the glass, perk up my ears, cock my head slightly to the right, and look into the kitchen with my big brown puppy eyes. (OK, OK, so I just turned 9, but you know we dogs are always puppies, till the day we die.) This trick almost always gets to the young male, and I hear him say, in a tone as pathetic as my expression, “Mom, look at puppy. Isn’t he cute?” And sure enough, one of you will come to the door and let me in. Sometimes, when the older male is home, even he will fall for it. He’s the one who first started letting me lie on the floor by the downstairs couch while he watches his own moving pictures.

So like a charm, my pathetic pose worked that afternoon, and in I came to watch and sniff while the young male banged around the kitchen concocting more food and more tantalizing smells, this time with something smooth and dark brown that involved eggs.

They say dogs like these things called eggs, but I don’t know. I never had a chance to eat one before. Blueberries and strawberries, yes. Even spaghetti. Those long strands wrapped themselves around my snout. I used to pick blackberries off the vines at the beach, but gave up because I didn’t like getting scratched on the snout by the thorns. Give me a piece of bread and I’ll pick it up tenderly in my teeth and tiptoe away, so no one can steal it from me before I have a chance to eat it. I may be a gregarious dog, but I fiercely protect my food. And I know that, when one of you drops something on the floor and loudly shouts “Oops!”, you’re not fooling yourselves. Or me. I know that’s my signal to come get the food you’d like to feed me without feeling guilty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo there was the young male, mixing things in a bowl with yet another one of those noisy machines, this one with silver things that clattered and spun around. This food didn’t appeal to me at first. The smell wasn’t quite right. But then he poured the stuff in a pan and stuck it in that big hot box, the one with the window in the door, and left the kitchen. Awhile later, he came back, opened the door, and pulled out the pan, setting it on the counter. You didn’t see this because you were somewhere in the house that I’m not allowed to go (yet). But I noticed. And sniffed.

After another little while, the young male came back and took the thing out of the pan, setting it on a plate. It looked to me like a dark round loaf of bread and smelled warm and slightly sticky. Then he did it again – poured more dark stuff in the pan, put it in the hot box, and – when the bell dinged – pulled it out and put it on the counter.

While he was doing all this, the female and her male came back to the house, and once again doors were opening and closing, people came and went, up and down stairs, in and out of rooms. So much commotion. I had a hard time keeping up with it all.

Eventually, the female and her male settled on the couch downstairs to watch their moving pictures (but mostly they were rubbing faces), the young male went off somewhere I couldn’t see, and you went downstairs to the room where you often sit staring at a glowing screen and talking to yourself. I decided to lie down where the young female and her friend were. Someone had to keep an eye on those two. (Better me than you, eh?)

A little while later, I awoke to voices – yours, the young male’s, and a new voice I’d never heard before. It was coming out of a small box you were holding in your hand and then laid down on the desk where you were sitting. You and the young male were peering at the screen and talking to each other and to the voice in the box. You have to forgive me – I was sleepy and confused by this strange voice with no body, and so I had to come into the room and bark. Loudly. And when I did, you got up from the chair, pulled me out of the room by that band around my neck, and then shut the door in my face! Well, I thought I’d better speak louder, to let you know I was there, ready to be of service in case you needed protection from that voice in the box.

And just then, that bell rang, the one with the two tones that mean someone new is here. Now this is a noise that just sets me off. Something about the tone hits me at a place I cannot master, just like the sounds the young female makes with her fingers on that big black box downstairs, the one with the white sticks. The sounds from that box make me sing. This bell makes me bark.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo there I was, barking downstairs, frantic because people were jumping up and moving, the young male ran up the steps to open the front door, which is what makes that bell stop ringing. A minute later, he came back down the stairs into your room. The voice in the box was still talking to you. Then you ran upstairs and then came back down to talk to the young female and her friend, who were slowly getting off the couch. The young male was still listening to the voice in the box and pushing buttons to change the pictures on the screen at the desk. Then the young female and her friend went upstairs, you went back to the desk and continued to talk to the voice in the box, and the young male went upstairs too.

I was getting dizzy watching all this and I finally decided to go upstairs to see what was going on. That’s where most of the pack was. I could hear the voices near the front door – the male friend of the female was putting those things on his feet that you all put on when you’re getting ready to leave, and usually leave me behind. The only time I ever get to leave this place is when you put me in one of the big white machines with wheels and you take me to that place where they look in my ears and try to poke something in my backside. Oh, I fight that, I do! Even after you wrap that blue thing around my snout and two of you hold me down in a corner of the room. Or you take me to that place with all the cages and other dogs, where I get lots of attention and play time. I pretend not to like it and grab your leg with my front legs when you turn toward the door to leave. I can’t have you thinking that I really want to be there, but if you let them scrub my face with that stinky scratchy stuff again, I just might decide I really don’t like to go there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo what with all the noise and commotion of the people at the front door and all that running up and down steps and the bell and the buzzing, beeping, clattering machines, and the smells still wafting from the kitchen, well – I don’t know what took hold in me. As you know, I have never put my paws on the kitchen counter before. Oh yes, I’ve done my circus dog act, prancing on my hind legs when there was something particularly luscious-smelling there. But I’ve never made contact with the countertop. Even when I’m overcome by the doggie devils, I’ve tried to rid myself of them by bashing an empty milk jug around on the porch or by charging insanely around the flower beds in the yard.

But this time, they got the best of me. Up I went on my hind legs, my paws rested on the counter, and before I knew what I was doing, my snout was in the brown loaf the young male had made. One bite, that’s all it was. And it didn’t even taste good. Too sweet. Not a hint of meat.

And just then, the young female saw me. All the noise at the front door had stopped and she had come back into the kitchen. She shouted my name and grabbed that band around my neck to pull me away. And then, the last doggie devil was let loose in me. I turned my snout and tried to grab her arm with my teeth. It was my food, you see. I had to protect it. I missed grabbing her arm, but she shouted, “No! Bad dog!”

And with that shout, the doggie devils disappeared and there I was, shoved rudely out the door to the porch, banished from the smells, the kitchen, and, sadly, from my pack of people.

Later, I heard the young male and female telling you what happened, gesturing toward me and the broken loaf. I saw the young male standing stiff, arms firmly crossed, with a hard, hard look on his face. The female was pointing to that spot on her arm where my teeth grazed her skin. I sat looking through the glass, feeling very, very sad. Even after 9 years, enough years to render me older and wiser, sometimes, the devils still win.

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The Land of Eternal Dog Days

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 26, 2006.

I’ve read that folks in the Pacific Northwest have more dogs than children. If this is true, I should probably update my first impressions of our new home here to include those of Copper, our 2-year-old Aussie.  This being dog country and the dog days approaching, his opinion of Olympia should count too.

Last fall, as Copper started investigating his new neighborhood, he discovered the fun of snitching gloves and shoes from neighbors, an activity we cut short with an invisible fence. Next, he learned to pick blackberries, nosing his snout in among the vines.

His first real adventures, however, began with the seal. One morning, descending with Copper and my son to the beach, I spotted a log lying above the tideline. Not unusual, except this log had flippers. Quickly, I hustled boy and dog back to the house and went looking for someone to help me with a dead seal. Eventually, I found someone at Cascadia Research, who took some blubber from the seal and anchored it at the water line for the tide to carry out.

The next morning, Copper disappeared from the yard, which was unusual since the electric fence went in. He reappeared shortly after I called, ecstasy in his eye, red streaks down his white chest — reeking. After hosing him down, I spent the rest of the morning, rake in hand, trying to shove that seal back out into the tide.

A month later, as I was walking with my children on the beach, Copper had his first-ever vision of his reason for being. We were collecting a caché of golf balls that had washed up, and a friendly dog came down to sniff Copper out. A moment later, I noticed three more dogs meandering down, and I stood trying to puzzle out why these dogs looked so angular. Then they began to bleat. Copper’s instinct went off, an instant before mine, and no more did he care about his doggie playmate. He was after the goats. There we were, me, my two children, two dogs, three goats, the owner of the goats and his wife, chasing Copper round and round, trying to nab him before he nabbed the goats.  (My thanks to the owner and his wife, who graciously understood a dog fulfilling his mission.)

But it wasn’t just goats. Besides herding seagulls, sandpipers, and an otter, one evening Copper flushed a deer from a thicket and was in hot pursuit.  I was no match for him in my yard shoes. Thankfully, he was no match for the deer. Still, he disappeared down the beach and, after searching and calling till twilight, I turned sadly homeward. Trudging up the steps to the yard, heart heavy, I wondered how to tell my children I had lost their dog. When I reached the top, there he stood in the yard — tongue lolling, eyes sparkling, looking at me as if to say, “Hey, where ya been?”

Oh, doggie.

If I have any skills at interpreting a dog’s mind, I’d say Copper loves this place. His home here sure beats the fenced-in postage stamp of yard he used to know.