Wednesday, June 21, 2006

To Fetch or Not to Fetch

The more I see of man, the more I like dogs. ~Mme. de Sta

I have been associated with many dogs over the years. I don't think of myself as an owner of dogs; I happen to have been one of the dogs' people. Fortunately, most dogs like having their own people, so it's a nice relationship.

My parents used to be the people of a viszla. Now, you probably don't know what that is, and I'm sorry for you, because viszlas are cool dogs. Think of a weimeraner. Now make him a little more fine boned and just slightly smaller. Color him golden brown, like honey. Give him a pink nose. You've got a viszla, arguably one of the best field dogs ever born. Ours was called Stormy, and he would fetch stuff until your arm wore out. He could also find lost baseballs. We had fields with tall grass around the house, and the neighbor kid and I had notoriously erratic arms; balls would disappear into the tall weeds. We'd bring out Stormy and take him to the approximate area of where we saw the ball roll. He'd circle for a few seconds, catch the scent, and zero in on the ball. We would then spend the next ten minutes trying to get the ball back from him.

His “fetch” was better than his “give."

As a result of years with that dog, I have this crazy idea that all dogs should like playing with balls and frisbees. My wife also shares my love of dogs, and she has been the adopter and caretaker of most of our mutts. I happen to like mutts because they're sturdier than purebreds. There's nothing wrong, mind you, with a beautiful black lab or a pointer, but purebred dogs tend to develop unfortunate physical breakdowns. Mutts are nearly indestructible.

At any rate, my wife likes to adopt dogs, so we seldom have less than three dogs around. But, somehow the dogs that gravitate to her aren't fetch dogs.

Some of them are just dumb. Rocky, for example, appeared to be part mastiff and part brick, the brick part having lodged squarely between his ears. He was very friendly, but if you, say, tossed a frisbee, he would look at it happily, then back at you, equally happily, as if to say, “Duh, that was neat. Pick that up and throw it again.” I gently tossed the thing straight to him a couple of times, but he simply sat there and watched it all the way until it bounced off his head.

This was a dumb dog.

Cleo, part rottweiler, part lion hound, all coward, would attempt to fetch, but she was so clumsy, we stopped throwing things for fear she would injure herself. She could trip over a dandelion. When she chased a ball, she would overrun it, then hit the brakes, churning up a chunk of lawn, fall down, then come back and pick up the ball. After all that, there was no way she was going to carry it back to you.

Cleo liked to tree squirrels. Since they were already up there, most of her work was done for her. She could just sit under the tree and bark. One day, I was coming up the drive, and she started to amble over. The squirrel, sensing a chance to have some fun, came charging down the tree and began to run across the yard. Cleo heard it and gave thundering chase. As she neared the woods, a tiny signal went off in her brain: “There's a fence there, stupid!” She slammed on the brakes, tumbled over three times, and bounced off the wire fence. No harm was done to her body, but her dignity was shot for days.

Then there was Sheba. Sheba was part chow and all attitude. When she came ambling down the driveway, fresh from her latest adventure, I felt that all that was missing was a black leather jacket and lipstick. She was that sort of dog. The idea of fetching was completely alien to her. If I tossed a pine cone, which she loved to chew on, she would look at it, look at me as if I had lost my teeny little mind, then amble off in the opposite direction and pick up another pine cone altogether. “Listen, idiot,” she seemed to say, “there's one of these right here. You think I'm going over there for one?”

Now, we have Emily, our labrador deceiver, and Tiny, our rottenweiler. Emily used to fetch, but she finally decided that if I was going to throw the ball over there, I must want it over there, so why bother to go pick it up? But, I have hopes for Tiny, who likes to play catch. She will bring over a tennis ball, look at you with what my wife calls “Hedy Lamarr” eyes and go “murff”. Loosely translated, that means “Toss it and I'll catch it.” Which she will do about three times on average. After that, she gets bored and thinks chewing on the ball is more fun that catching it.

(Parenthetically, what is with dogs and tennis balls? I mean, how can they stand all that fuzzy on their tongues? Think about it. Makes you want to go “fwah”, doesn't it?)

I'm going to keep working with Tiny, because I suspect there's a fetch dog lurking inside of her somewhere. She's got part of it down. She likes to push her tennis balls under things. I don't mean she let's them roll under, say, the couch. She'll carefully set it down on the floor next to the couch and then push it underneath with a paw or her nose. Then she waits for the wife or me to come get it. So she understands the concept of fetch. She's already taught us to do it.

Now if I can get her to understand that she's supposed to fetch, not me, I'll be getting somewhere.

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