Southern Dogs

According to Ogden Nash, “A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.”

Early in the mornings — I mean early like 5 a.m. — Abbie and Milo, two of our younger “pups,” decide it’s time to go out. In the past, I’ve addressed them as “you guys” and told them to go lie down and put a sock in it. But not anymore. I usually just get up and let them out, saying, “Alright boys and girls, go do what you have to do, but don’t expect me to wait up for you.” Hank, the grand old man of dogs, just lifts his chin off his bed and wishes the commotion would die down so he can go back to sleep. After all, he’s a “good boy” and knows breakfast ain’t going to happen anytime soon.

All the dogs have names, of course, and rarely go by the third person pronouns “he” or“she,” and definitely not “it,” even though none of them will ever make or carry puppies. Instead of pronouns they also go by nicknames like “little brown dog,” “bird-dogniacs”  or “hooligans” (when they’re behaving most crazily), “burglar boys” or just plain “pup-dog,” although all are adults if not downright senior citizens by now.

When I read T.S.Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats” to my daughter when she was a tyke and more interested in unicorns than cats or dogs, I learned that cats have four kinds of names. One is the appellation we use with them daily and they pretend to tolerate, such as Augusus, Alonzo or Bill Bailey; then there are the fancier titles such as Electra, Demeter, or Plato, names they go by in higher feline society; the third category is one with particular monikers like Quaxo, Bombalurina, or Jellylorum that they believe make them more dignified; but the fourth group is unknown to us all, a handle that no human research can discover. Only the cat himself knows this name and will never confess it.

This kind of nomenclature is way too complicated and unnecessary for dogs, who always can be counted on to take their medicine greedily and without scratching you. These guys accept without regret the name you give them and are quick to respond. Unlike Eliot’s cats, dogs–or at least all the hounds who have graced my life–never engage their minds in profound meditation and are certainly never in rapt contemplation of what they’re called. “Dinner time” is fine with them.

When Milo came into our lives last December, he had some inappropriate name like Buddy or something as akin to anonymity as you can imagine. He was an outcast, a stray that had been taken in by our friends who run a nearby Golden Retriever Rescue. And he’s not even a Goldie. It’s just that Carol has a heart of gold and the last of the county shelters were closing because people wouldn’t fork over the bucks to keep them open.

When we hear of more and more kids living in poverty and a legion of dogs and cats being injected and gassed daily (why do we turn a blind eye and opt for the obscene and antiseptic word “euthanize” to cover up our crimes), it breaks your heart. There’s no room at the inn because too many knuckleheads are chanting “no new taxes.” And it’s no accident that the greatest villainess in all of Shakespeare is known for her infamous three words: “Out, damn’d Spot.”

But I digress. Back to the behavior of dogs.

One morning last week when Abbie and Milo needed to go out and bark at the deer in the yard or the possum that has been climbing atop the kiwi vines on the pergola, I went to my iMac to see what else was happening in the world. Lo and behold, a friend had sent me an e-mail joke entitled “The Dog’s Dictionary.” I had just finished reading about Ambrose Bierce, best known for his 19th century satirical lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary, so was geared up to see if the dogs could top anything old Ambrose had coined.

Glancing at random at “The Dog’s Dictionary,” I came upon “sniff” which means “a social custom to use when you greet other dogs or those people that sometimes smell like dogs.” Now my dogs are good at this; in fact, they’re masters of it.

Next I found a word that they all knew right away: “Drool.” Their ears perked up immediately when I read: “What you do when your owners have food and you don’t. To do this properly, sit as close as you can, look sad and let your saliva fall to the floor or better yet on their laps.”

By now, they were getting into this literary excursion and were actually paying attention and not being distracted by every little noise or movement. Not even the mention of a“walkie” would budge them. Their tongues were out, which is always a good sign, but I wanted some balance so I went back to Bierce. Milo especially objected, but he was overruled since he has been known on rare occasion to display painful faults of vulgarity and cheapness of imagination (trying to hump the male cat).

So I sat them all down in a row to catch carrot sticks while I tried to bring their cultural level up a notch or two. First attempt was less than a success. I read Ambrose’s aphorism that “a man is known by the company he organizes.” They all thought this was an obvious truism and not of much import, especially since I find pretty much what I need in society by hanging out with them. They saw uninspired logic in my making a big fuss out of it.

I searched the cynic’s word book again and chose “Dog: a kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship.” This was almost as much fun as catching a carrot stick on the fly and there was no argument.

Then Abbie suggested something from her dictionary and offered up “Thunder: A signal the world is coming to an end. Humans remain amazingly calm during thunderstorms, so it is necessary to warn them of the danger by trembling, panting, rolling your eyes wildly and following at their heels.” Her old bedmate Bertie, now guarding the clothesline in the play fields of the Lord, was terrified of thunder, so Abbie knows of what she speaks.

I couldn’t argue about the thunder and its terror, either, since my beloved Aunt Dolly, also now long in the fields of the Lord, was also terrified of the thunder and that was good enough for me.

To change the topic, I suggested we find some foodie entries. Of course, all paws went up in approval. I reminded them of the old cartoon with the caption “Why dogs seldom survive ship wrecks.” The ship is going down in the distance and the dogs in the lifeboat all have their front paws raised. The lead dog has just asked the fateful question: “All those in favor of eating all the rations right now, please raise your right paw.” Sober silence….

Dogs are creatures of the moment. You go away for a week and they’re ecstatic to greet you. You go to the bathroom for a few minutes and they’re ecstatic at your reappearance. There’s little sense of the future so when I quoted Ambrose as saying the “future is that period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured,” they just hung their heads in puzzlement. Any more carrots?

With nothing to chase and no more carrots, the pups were quickly tiring of this game. For amusement, Hank laid a guilt trip on me by bringing up the time I scolded him when we had company and he misbehaved. He still thought it unfair to have been chastised for running up and down the front of the sofa and wiping his muzzle clean. After all, in his dictionary a sofa is a handy wipe.

I tried to fetch him out of his doldrums by saying how happy we were when he finally grew out of perpetual puppyhood pranks and was able to contain some of his overzealous enthusiasm. I then read him that “enthusiasm is the distemper of youth, curable by small doses of repentance in connection with outward applications of experience.” He looked glazed eyed and said all he remembered besides the “blah, blah, blah” was how sick he had been after ingesting a lot of gravel in his enthusiasm to lick up some of the meat drippings from the grill which had been parked in the driveway.

Since we had all just about barked the possum treed by this time, we kind of settled in on one last word. Abbie chose “deliberation” and I looked it up and read that it meant “the act of examining one’s bread to determine which side it is buttered on.” She smiled her broad grin and retold the testimony of her abiding belief in God. One day when she was stretched out on the floor in front of my stool at lunch, a large piece of my cheeseburger broke off and hit her on the shoulder. I can still see her looking up in holy amazement and apologizing for being dyslectic as she mouthed, “Thank you, Dog!”

So as we finally emerge from the Dog Days of Summer, my pups blissfully and without a second thought continue to look to us for their food, shelter and companionship. And I continue to have faith in their nobility of character despite their shameless sense of unlimited entitlement.

And we love them dearly. In the words on the picture frame showing Abbie nestled up by me: “Live like the man your dog thinks you are.”


David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.