It’s a dog’s world

So what am I doing in it, anyway?

Photo by Tom Angel

It’s said there are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners. If that’s true, I’m one of the worst dog owners ever to shake a leash.

I’ve had dogs that dig, dogs that bite, dogs that run away and don’t come back. I’ve had dogs that bark, dogs that scratch my door at night, dogs that keep me from my sleep and dogs that crap all over my yard, depositing nasty little nurseries for flies.

The odd thing is, I’ve never in my life actually gone out to get a dog. I’ve never said to myself, “Gee, I’d really like to have a dog hanging around, licking his privates, scratching his fleas, filling the air with doggie breath.” Nope, not once.

All the dogs I’ve owned, and there have been plenty, have come my way unbidden. An example is the collie-Labrador mix I inherited when his owners, my neighbors, asked me to take care of him while they were out of town for a week. They never came back.

They’d named him—get this—Collidor. That ridiculous name was the least of his liabilities, however. He had a gimp front leg from a close encounter with a car, a long, collie-like snout, tiny eyes and one lop ear. He was the most foolish-looking dog I’d ever seen. He was sweet, though, but as stupid as a hamster.

And horny? The poor guy couldn’t seem to get any doggie action. It wasn’t for lack of trying, however. He was forever getting beat up in fights over females in heat. Whenever I hear that expression, “hornier than a 10-dick dog,” I think of ol’ Collidor.

Another dog, a gray terrier mix named Penny, came my way when some of the kids in the neighborhood showed up at my door. One of them, a little girl, held this bedraggled puppy in her arms. “My momma’s gonna take her to the pound if we don’t find a home for her,” she said. My girlfriend gave me her best We-can’t-just-let-the-poor-thing-die look. What a sucker I am.

As dogs go, Penny was pretty good, much like the Maggie of my youth. She had one problem, however, and it was a biggie. She didn’t like men. When a strange man came to our house, she’d silently sidle up to him, giving no warning whatsoever—no bark, no growl, nothing—and sink her fangs into his legs.

Even so, Penny was an improvement over the dog my girlfriend had when I met her. He was a big brown brute of indeterminate origin, most of it mastiff, I think. She’d gotten him for companionship after being dumped by her previous boyfriend, and they’d bonded in a powerful way. As far as this dog was concerned, I was an interloper, a rival out to take his place. Every time I got in bed with my girlfriend, he’d snarl at me, exposing his long, sharp fangs and growling menacingly. I had to back into bed, moving very slowly and keeping my eyes on the dog as I did so.

Fortunately, we went on a long trip once and had to leave the dog with my brother, and he—the dog, not my brother—ran away. My girlfriend was bereft and kept imagining the dog would show up at her doorstep, like Lassie miraculously come home, even though we lived in Santa Monica and my brother lived in Fresno. I commiserated with her, I really did.

Even when I was a kid, it was like that. The only dog I remember fondly was Maggie, a little Maltese poodle with fine white fur that followed my sister home from school one day. She was cute and clean and smart, and we all liked her. Then my folks got the great idea of finding her a companion, so they went to this puppy mill place and brought home Jiggs. Maggie and Jiggs, get it? Anyway, Jiggs turned out to be an inbred disaster and everything Maggie was not: He had kinky gray hair that was always dirty, his teeth were bad, he had halitosis, and he was so stupid he couldn’t find his food bowl. Even Maggie could tell he was a loser. She’d have nothing to do with him.

More recently, I’ve had dogs in my life because my wife is a dog lover. Being a dog lover is a malady for which there is no remedy, apparently, so for better or worse I’ve learned to live with her dogs.

Her choices in dogs haven’t always been as good as her choice of husband, however. For a while she adored Siberian huskies, and I could see why: They’re beautiful animals. We went through several of them before realizing that they just don’t take well to suburban back yards. One dug more tunnels than the Viet Cong. Another ran away—over and over.

Now we have a big, handsome German shepherd named Max. Max’s only usefulness is that he’s a big German shepherd. When people see him they don’t think about coming into our yard uninvited. That’s a good thing, too, because if they did Max would greet them at the gate, his tail wagging.

Max does protect us—from other dogs. If a dog wanted to burglarize our house, he’d have a tough time getting past Max. Max keeps watch for dogs and barks whenever he notices one. He can see them a hundred yards away, even the dogs all the way across Lindo Channel behind our house. Since that’s where all the people in the neighborhood walk their dogs, Max does a lot of barking.

Over time we’ve found that the only way to get him to stop barking is to bring him inside. Now he knows that when he wants to come inside, all he needs to do is start barking. He’s got us well trained.

Come to think of it, dogs have all of us well trained. They’re the ultimate con artists, the kind who “pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it,” as writer Steven Budiansky has put it. They get room and board, medical care, toys to play with and all the free time in the world, and for what? Except for hunting and junkyard dogs, not much.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fond of Max. I pick up his poop, brush him and take him for walks along the channel. My son, who’s 5, likes to come along. He thinks dogs are fascinating creatures, and funny, too. One day we watched Max making the acquaintance of another dog. “Liam, look at how dogs say hello,” I said. “They sniff each other’s butts.” Liam thought that was hilarious. Now whenever Max meets a new dog, Liam bursts into laughter.

Sometimes I take Max for long hikes in Upper Park. When I see him running free across open countryside, ears perked to pick up every sound, I see a beautiful expression of the magnificence of creation. Really. I’m serious.

Of course, on the way back to the car Max invariably jumps in the creek to cool off and then leaves mud all over my back seat.

I guess that’s life—in a dog’s world.