On the third of July, the dog days of summer, 40 days of especially hot and humid weather with little rainfall, officially began. The name comes from the ancient Greeks who believed that Sirius, the “dog star,” which rose with the sun at that time, was adding to the sun’s heat. They also believed that the weather made dogs go mad. The Romans tried to appease Sirius by sacrificing a brown dog at the start of the dog days.
When told this bizarre story, my “brown dog” Milo assumed his morning Yoga Lotus position–he’s also a master of the “Downward Facing Dog”– yawned, and said he’d bite any Roman in the backside who charged up our drive in his chariot looking for brown dogs.
So with all this heat, humidity, and parched and panting tongues, imagine the prospect of being sacrificed, especially for something you didn’t do. Where do your worst nightmares take you? Milo confessed that on a bad night he’s in an litter-strewn alley with the dogcatcher about to nab him in some cartoon-like net.
All of the dogs — Hank, Abbie, and Milo — frequently have bad dreams. Perhaps they think my wife Jody has just scolded them for vacuuming the kitchen floor, or that they’ve temporarily lost their bearings and lifted a leg in the house, or that they are back in obedience school where they can’t remember ever going to class but now face a grueling test like sitting still for 15 seconds. Worst yet is kicking your feet and dreaming of being chased by the very rabbits and squirrels you plot against daily?
But you’re up now, you take another long stretch, then yawn with spirit and volume this time. Now let’s put those worries out of our mind and think about the hapless groundhog that wandered into our yard just yesterday, oblivious that he was about to be the matinee idol of you and your fellow canine housemates.
We live in the woods on the West Virginia side of the Great North Mountain, the natural ridge that forms the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley. Hank, Abbie, and Milo love their life here with so much wildlife to bark at and chase. There’s always a bird or two who needs to be flushed. And then the arch nemesis, Mr Squirrel, the brave or perhaps just reckless one who dares the perils of the bird feeder. Milo is calculating and patient, lying there camouflaged, staring at his stopwatch saying “I know how long it takes you to get to that tree and you’re almost to the fail/safe point where you venture one more squirrel foot too many and you’re mine.” So far, the squirrel is still winning, but who knows what the morning will bring.
So after a pre-dawn and relatively cool patrol around their domain, the pups are unusually pumped and more than ready for their breakfast. From their bustle to get to their bowls, I imagine they’re expecting warm chunks of a juicy roast beef. Pity the poor linebacker who gets between them and their groceries.
Within seconds, the meal has vanished. Everyone who has ever had a dog knows that finicky eaters are usually dogs with no bunkmates, solitary diners in one-dog families who don’t have the rest of the pack lunging at their bowls. Nothing improves a dog’s appetite more than another dog eating as fast as he can and waiting impatiently– heaven forbid, certainly not in any line–for the chance to steal a morsel of his buddy’s food.
Watching them eat reminds me of the cartoon with a pack of dogs in a life boat with their ship sinking in the background. The main dog asks: “Those in favor of eating all the rations now right now, raise their paws.” Of course, all the dogs are seen with their paws up. The caption is: “Why dogs seldom survive ship wrecks.”
Dogs may be thought of as man’s best friend, but when it comes to chow, it’s every dog for himself. It always amazes me to watch them immediately go over to the other dog’s bowl and actually expect to find something that has been missed.
As Bill Cosby used to say about those of us with only one child, “You people don’t deserve to be called parents.” My life with dogs says that you people with only one dog don’t know what you’re missing.
What our dogs really like best are winter, spring and fall. They definitely do not like July and August, when they can’t get enough cold water and their tongues almost drag the ground… and that’s when they’re stretched out in the shade hiding from horse flies and other malevolent visitors from other planets.
I like to think that in these stifling days of mid summer they’re lying there dreaming of the spring when the bear came to visit, the black bear that had arrived hungry when there was nothing for him to eat. He was a recently awakened and still sleepy eyed omnivore. Ursus americanus had gone to bed hungry the previous fall when acorns were scarce. He had had a troubled sleep and had awakened even hungrier. And now in the early days of spring, there still wasn’t much available to eat, save some grubs and who wants to eat grubs.
The pups were all asleep on the floor early in the dark just before morning around our bed when Jody heard a noise out in the vicinity of the sunroom. I got up grudgingly thinking one of the cats, almost certainly Tucker — who should have been named McCavity, the Napoleon of crime — had knocked something off the table. But the noise was on the other side of the sliding glass door. When I turned the outdoor light on, I was eyeball to eyeball with this guy who had just crushed the bird feeder and was determined to reach around the side of the house to get to another feeder attached to the window.
Jody later said she had never heard that particular tone to my voice. When I stammered, “Oh, my God,” I was this side of a diaper-changing moment. And so much for the reliability of eye-witness accounts. How big was it? I don’t know. Which way did it go? I don’t know?
It was weeks before I washed the bear snot off the glass. I was so proud to show off those streaks.
Meantime, the fearless dogs were most content to stay in the bedroom despite all the ruckus. But it was still spring and cool and their beds beckoned them to slumber on. Later when they went outside as soon as daylight had come, they knew this was no squirrel that had come visiting. One thing about black bears that became obvious, but wasn’t until I almost stepped into it, was the huge pile of scat the bear had left behind. And then another pile and still another.
Anyone who’s had a dog knows what wonderful companions they are. But they do have a few annoying problems. First among their shortfalls is that they like to eat poop. I know that’s disgusting, but none of us is perfect. Contrary to popular belief, cats are really dog’s best friends, since there’s always bound to be a kitty litter box somewhere around. And what a treat to find a pile of deer pellets…if you’re an experienced dog, you’ll know the sequence of events. You roll in the pile first and then you eat them like milk duds. Dogs are smart like Vikings–pillage and rape first, then burn.
But they wanted nothing to do with this kind of bear Easter basket. Abbie, who’s almost a gourmet when it comes to poop, went down on her stomach, her hair bristling, as she approached what appeared to be an ant hill. She was terrified.
With this picture in mind, imagine the bear actually returning a week or so later. And it’s daylight! As I’m brewing coffee, I hear Hank barking in a different way. It sounded a bit like the noise he made when he was feinting with a huge snapping turtle the summer before. This was a Def-Con Four bark, not a bark at a deer they had spotted in the trees. This was a bark that said all stops had been pulled, torpedoes had been armed, helmeted gun crews aboard ship were scanning for kamikazes, bayonets had been fixed.
As I ran outside, I saw the bear in my peripheral vision. Hank was at the top of the yard with Abbie–the wise Alpha Female–behind him, probably egging him on. She knew better. Fortunately, the residual testosterone in the Hankster didn’t amount to enough to launch him in pursuit of the bear who simply wanted to get the hell out of Dodge.
This fat groundhog, who had had the temerity to waddle across the dog’s terrain, this critter with the wicked claws who was perilously close to Jody’s garden, got treed. I had never seen anything like it before. Coons get treed, even bears, but groundhogs? Usually they slip away into the woods or down a den hole. Perhaps this guy was either so surprised or so befuddled by the charge of the dogs and the wailing of another high pitched Def-Con Four siren scream that he climbed about 20 feet up a Sycamore just in the nick of time. Milo knows that squirrels are fast, but he figured that the ‘hog was a lumberer. Drats…
And the treeing was in broad daylight and in summer in the heat of the afternoon. What a time to celebrate!
When Jody shouted for me, I was in my shop trying to make something on my lathe. I had just read a short article by Todd Hoyer, well known in wood turning circles, who said: “The combination of weathered wood and rusted wire reflects my aging process. The metal layers flow and weave throughout, defining pathways, some continuing and others ending; they represent the choices I have made in my life. Looking back, I realize the interconnection between my past experiences and my present work.”( American Woodturner, April 2011)
Feeling rather contemplative as my birthday into the other side of my mid 60s approaches, I didn’t hear the dear lady at first. Then Jody’s voice broke through my reverie, as did the barking. I quickly recovered from my visit to another place and went out to see the poor ‘hog up the tree.
But this was no everyday treeing. This was a hot and humid treeing. The hapless groundhog was perched on his limb looking down as the dogs worked themselves into a lather, praying to Sirius that they would even give up eating cat poop just for the momentary ability to climb that particular tree. They didn’t even plead for general tree climbing skills. They were reasonable and measured dogs.
Woody the Woodchuck finally got so tired of the noise and heat that he kind of melted around the limb, something furry and hot with his fat tummy on the limb and his head and bottom hanging languidly down as he formed a kind of horseshoe with his body. He was glued to the limb and the dogs were intent on barking incessantly at him. But the afternoon finally cooled into evening and the dogs were tired and needed a nap after all this grueling work. The next morning, though, they raced out to the Sycamore in expectation of finding their prey still in the tree. He wasn’t.
The morning was hot, very hot, and it was still early. As they aggressively searched for the groundhog and got hot and sweaty all over again, I remembered that the expression “Dog days” has been adopted by the stock market because the markets tend to be slow and sluggish during this time. The term has also come to mean any period of stagnation or inactivity.
And I smiled and wondered more about that weathered wood and rusted wire.