Monday, March 29, 2010

A dork by any other name

I often wonder what Murdoch’s name used to be and if he still remembers it almost two years after I picked him up. It took us over a month to give him a new name after I found him, partly because we couldn’t agree on one, but mostly because we knew deep down that naming him would mean we made a decision to keep him; neither of us wanted to be responsible for that. As our attempts to pass him on to someone else were continually thwarted we realized we needed to find something to call him since he was beginning to show signs he thought his name was Good Boy - which he definitely wasn’t.

During his first month with us we were barely able to get his attention by yelling “Hey!” And if he happened to return to us while we clapped our hands and then waved them wildly over our heads, we went overboard with the “Good Boy”s, because anything good he did was so rare, we jumped on the slightest thing.

“Did that look like he was thinking about running in my direction? Good Boy!”

“He didn’t bite me very hard that time. Good Boy!”

“Is he sitting? Good Boy!”

We yelled, “Come here,” and “Good Boy” together so often he started to respond to Good Boy with a certain recognition in his eye.

Over those first few weeks, Morgan and I must have gone through about 200 names. Everyday we each offered up a slew of options, a lot of them were ridiculous, some were pretty decent but not for our particular bundle of terror, mostly one of us would like a name the other couldn’t stand. Some names we kept for half a day, rolling them around in our mouths to see how they felt before realizing they didn’t suit him. I have no idea how people name babies.

Murdoch was the winner mostly because we’d run out of steam and were tired of discussing the subject 24 hours a day. We came up with the name while returning from a road trip on which Murdoch had accompanied us because there had been no other option. He was securely belted into the back seat of the car and I kept turning around to look at him as Morgan drove and we bounced names back and forth. It had been quiet for a while as we watched the scenery fly by the window, the wind-blown pines that lined the road were scraggily and very green against the flat grey sky.

“What about Murdoch?” I suggested, explaining how every crazy person in every movie or tv show is always called Murdoch. It seemed to suit.

“Yeah, that works,” said Morgan. “I like it.”

Okay then, Murdoch it was. A few minutes later, after thinking about it, I piped up again, “No, I don’t think I like it.”

“No,” Morgan answered rather quickly, I thought, “We are not changing it again. It’s Murdoch.”

“Fine,” I said, turning to face the road. I imagined myself calling the name Murdoch out our front door or around trees as we tromped through the woods but wasn’t sure I liked how it sounded. However, it wasn’t long before I got so used to yelling his name I was calling everyone Murdoch for a while.

It took me eight months from the day I brought him home to actually start liking Murdoch. I could tell Morgan and I had changed attitudes towards the little demon when we no longer just addressed him as Murdoch, but began shortening his name to Murd. Then the nicknames started rolling easily off our tongues each time we spoke to him and I knew he was officially part of our family.

All of our dogs have nicknames that are used more frequently than their actual names and each one reflects in no uncertain terms exactly where they fit in. Bear is often called Baby Bear or Bearalina. A lot of the time it’s just Floopy or Boobers. Mostly I call her Peanut, but she does get an occasional Sweet Pea, as does Max. I don’t think I’ve ever referred to Murdoch as Sweet Pea though.

Max is often addressed as Maxwell or Maxamillion - both are best said with an English accent. He also gets Maximum or Maximo or just plain Cutie (but that’s mostly from me).

Murdoch is a whole different story. His nicknames carry a certain understated hostility which mirror his attitude almost perfectly. Most commonly I find myself calling him Murd McTurd, but there is also Murdork, Merp the Twerp or Murple the Purple Nurple.

I’m quite sure he doesn’t understand the negative undertones, but they all get the same long-faced “I am not amused” stare in return. But that’s pretty much what Murdoch’s face looks like all the time. His almost piercing brown eyes peer through sprays of hair growing up and out instead of lying flat at the top of a long snout that ends in pouty lips which peek out from behind his shaggy beard. Mostly it’s the sulky face of a spoiled child who has just been told “No” for the first time and it makes me want to pinch his cheeks every time.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A bit of a clown

From our estimations, Murdoch is closing in on two-and-a-half. As he calms down a bit, matures and grows into his giant jaw, he is beginning to shed his spawn-of-satan persona and becoming somewhat of a one-dog comedy routine. If I’m not yelling at the top of my lungs at the retreating black figure of flailing limbs and flowing tail reminiscent of the ominous flag on a pirate ship, chances are I’m doubled over with laughter at his completely ridiculous antics. It helps that he looks a lot like a muppet.

Murdoch is either lightening up a bit or my sense of humour is becoming much darker. Either way, Murdoch is a lot more fun to have around than he used to be. The thing I’m starting to really appreciate about Murdoch is his toughness. It used to be a problem when that toughness was turned on everyone who tried to establish themselves as anything other than a plaything, but now it just makes for some really great slapstick comedy.

I have lost track of the number of times Murdoch has returned to my side after a romp through the woods with great swathes of hair missing from his face, replaced by beads of blood on raw skin. It’s as though he ran blindly through the bush, taking on every tree that got in his way. When questioned about it, his big brown eyes casually return my concerned stare with the sentiment, “What? It’s just a scratch.”

One evening Murdoch and I headed out for a walk. I let him off his leash near the spot I always set him free so he can run with reckless abandon amongst the long grass and splash through the swampy water at the bottom of the deep ditch at the side of the road.

He sat by my side and I unhooked his leash, telling him to wait. He waited and watched me for a minute until I said “Okay”, and he pounded off into the grasses. His presence was known only from the sounds of splashing and rustling and the wild waving of the tops of the grasses as he ran through them.

He leapt back up the ditch and burst from the long grass, trotting along the edge of the road for a minute before turning towards the ditch again. With a flying leap, he cleared the four-foot span of the abyss and then ploughed in to the patch of forest on the other side. I walked slowly along the road as he crashed through the trees behind me.

And then it went quiet. I stopped and waited, straining to hear any sound.

The silence was shattered  suddenly with an urgent crashing through brush, louder than before, and I could feel a sense of panic in the air. For a split second I thought something was chasing him. Something big that accounted for the much louder din emerging from the trees. My stomach lurched at the thought of a bear clamouring along behind my dog and following him straight to me. I froze while my mind scrambled over all the ways to get out of this situation.

Murdoch’s black body appeared in a blur from the trees, moving so quickly he propelled himself across the ditch earlier than he should have and misjudged the distance. His body careened through the air, panic emanating from every pore, as he came in for a landing on the edge of the road. His front feet weren’t fast enough to get completely underneath him and he tripped over the trampled grasses on the slope of the ditch. His body continued forward with the same momentum as his front legs slipped underneath him and were pinned against the ground as the edge of the road rushed up to meet his face.

His back legs still scrambled across the ground, clearly not aware that his front end had come to an abrupt halt. Murdoch’s whole body bucked urgently forward, as he tried to get his front feet planted firmly beneath him again, causing his face to bounce about three times off the packed-dirt road.

Finally getting some purchase with his front feet, he snapped around in one motion, 180 degrees, and stood, stalk-still, facing the bush in a stance that said he was ready to take on whatever was chasing him. Nothing was there. I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched the spectacle and when he turned to look at me I called him over. He sauntered to my side, the imminent threat passed, and looked at me with a nonchalant expression in his eyes. The black shaggy hair on his face had turned brown and gravelly with dirt and his tongue was coated in mud.

“Are you okay?” I asked through my laughter, petting the top of his head. “You’re such a goof.”

With that, he turned and skipped back into the long grass. The sound of water being slurped into his mouth floated up to where I stood shaking my head.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Good dog, walking

The sky is darkening quickly. The once bright shimmering blue deepens and dims in what seems like a matter of minutes as the sun dips closer to the horizon, rushing to meet the mountains that clamour for the sky. Now the yellow orb sheds its intensity as though disrobing for bed and casting aside its finery for another day before sinking into the Earth.

It is the sun of late winter, a sun gearing up for a change of season. Climbing higher in the sky with each passing day, its heat intensifies as winter slowly draws to a close, casting a satisfying, gasping warmth, that fills you up like a hug from an old friend you haven’t seen in years. In some ways it feels just like that, a grand return, after months in which the sun made a fleeting appearance as it dashed across the sky just above the horizon, never gaining the strength needed to warm the snapping cold air that settled heavily over the land, like bricks piled up to build a fortress.

In the looming twilight the sun nestles deeper behind the mountains and sends vague memories of itself filtering across the sky, an afterglow that darkens trees to black, featureless shadows and makes melting blankets of snow shine with an eerie electric blue.

It is a magical time for a walk amongst the trees as the warmth dissipates in the surrounding air, like mist burning off a lake on an early mid-summer morning, and the coldness creeps up from the still-frozen ground and rushes out from the dense woods. It entwines itself around everything, clings to skin and fills lungs with the heaviness of a damp night ahead, yet holds the memory of the last wisps of warmth from the day. It is as though you are swallowing shadows of the sun itself.

I emerge from the snow-covered trail as the sun disappears completely and the sky is a deep indigo that paints everything the same hue, including the very air through which I walk. Murdoch trots along beside me, free of his leash, as our feet meet the dirt road. The road is wet after a day of melting snow and is a dark, smooth, endless path before us.

My feet crunch and squelch over the wet gravel. Beside me marches Murdoch’s shaggy black shape, a large stick clasped purposefully in his square jaw. We have just spent almost an hour playing fetch. While I kept a fairly even pace along the snowy trail through the woods, Murdoch dashed back and forth, his floppy, shaggy-haired back feet flying up past his ears as he covered great swathes of ground, a black blur in frenzied pursuit of the stick

Now on our way home along the road, Murdoch keeps pace with me, his four feet padding more gently over the ground, issuing quieter crunches than my own. In the darkening veil of twilight we become two shapes moving across the land. There is no other sound but us.

I am so very aware of his presence beside me, this black shadow that almost blends in with the dark brown dirt of the road. He walks to my left, his head is perfectly in line with my body. For a moment it feels as though we are moving as one. There is an invisible link between us, holding us together. As I tune in to our feet rhyming off a purposeful march, the sound moves through me and touches a smile to my lips.

I glance sideways at him and he glances at me. In the descending gloom I can see the whites of his eyes as he turns them in my direction, his head cocked slightly towards me. He never breaks his casual saunter. It is a perfect moment and my heart wants to leap from my body with joy. It’s just me and my dog, together, walking.

We are both completely relaxed and I can feel him there, in the moment with me. The glance we share sends a knowing look between us that says ‘yes, this is good.’ The smile remains on my lips and I keep myself grounded in the moment as long as I can. I don’t know how long it will last. I have learned to cherish every good moment I have with Murdoch. They are becoming more and more frequent, almost as if he is actually morphing into the good dog I always imagined was lurking deep within his bad dog exterior.

Now, approaching the spot where I don’t dare pass without him firmly attached to me, lest he decide to chase our neighbour’s dog, I unfurl his leash. He changes course and veers towards me, sitting at my feet and waiting expectantly for the treat I always have ready for him. The last two minutes he has been the model of a perfect dog and I think how lucky I was a car did not appear or another dog, or any moving target for that matter. His good dog persona would have been shed in an instant, left crumpled on the ground by my feet, forgotten, as he dashed off, lunging at his target, all-in for this new game.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cleofatra vs. the baby gate

On a sunny day, warm rays filter through the forest of trees that march right up to our house, and spill through filmy windows of late winter. Great puddles of golden light temporarily stain the dark wooden floor with a swath of bright yellow before moving on to the couch, then the wall.

The cats are always the first to notice this warm light, indeed they find a way to appreciate the thin comfort the winter sun provides, spending their days following the little golden pools from place to place, including the extra wide step that marks the corner of our stairs at the spot where they turn and descend from the living room to the kitchen. Many a day we have found a cat sprawled out in that most hazardous location, lethargic in the yellow warmth, a sleepy, drunken look on their face. The moment is shattered in an instant with a grunt of discontentment as they are nudged forcefully from the spot by a foot looking to actually use the stairs for their intended purpose.

But I envy the cats those days. What must it be like to just collapse in a heap in any spot you want at any time because you’re tired and the sun hits you just right and the house is quiet and the melting snow beats out a sleepy rhythm as it drips from the edge of the roof; like at the end of a heavy spring shower where giant conglomerates of raindrops patter down from the trees.

It is on one such day I find Cleo stretched out on the floor asleep, glowing, inside a square of sun. The light glints off her whiskers and fur so she looks like she’s been dusted with sparkles and I know she’ll be warm and seem extra-soft to the touch if I reach down and pet her.

I disturb the air as I walk by and Cleo glances up at me through half-closed eyes of utter contentment, I think I can see a dopey smile on her face and I wonder, as I watch her head return to the sunny warmth of the floor, are cats supposed to have double chins?

I’m not really sure how Cleo got so fat. She was the second smallest kitten in the litter but when I think about it I don’t remember her ever being particularly sleek. One minute she was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, and the next she had ballooned into a very round cat with a tiny head. She seems to have an obsession with food that has not been solved by feeding the cats specifically measured amounts of kibble at the same time the dogs eat their meals.

Cleo benefits greatly from her brother Chestnut being a grazer. Her tendency to be more of a hoover sees her face disappear into her dish and not come up for air until every last scrap of food is gone, then she moves on to anything Chestnut left behind.

Sprawled out in the sun, her white belly is a giant mound on the floor, her profile becomes like that of a beached whale. Cleo’s girth may allow her to trap more sun, but it also has proven a tad hazardous in day-to-day life, such as that time she got stuck trying to squeeze herself through a hole in the baby gate.

The gate sits at the top of the six steps that lead from the entryway into our kitchen. We put it there to stop Murdoch from taking over the entire house. When he proved himself capable of being trusted to stay out of his kennel unattended, we still wanted to contain him in an area where we could control the amount of damage he inflicted on our things. The baby gate served the purpose perfectly.

It’s one of those very basic old wooden-framed ones with two plastic panels full of holes the size of Loonies and a couple of wooden arms that fold over each other. One of the arms has notches in it and the other sports a metal hinge that drops into the appropriate notch so the panels can slide past each other and adjust to the width of the door.

After tripping over the gate and just about falling down the stairs in a tangle with the thing for the umpteenth time, Morgan finally fastened it to the wall with a hinge so we could use it like a door. He then cut a normal-cat-sized square hole in one bottom corner so Cleo, who likes to jump down between the spindles of the banister that overlooks the entryway from the kitchen and spend time with Murdoch, can escape when he gets too rough.

As I knelt before the dog food cupboard filling bowls for supper one evening, I found myself directly in line with the hole in the baby gate. Cleo, hearing the sound of food being dished, clamboured up the stairs and began to climb through the hole in her casual queen-of-the-universe kind of way. She reached through with her dainty front paws, followed by her head, then her shoulders, before coming to an abrupt halt. I watched as neck fat bunched at the back of her head and she reached forward with her front paws and tried to pull herself through while at the same time shoving with her back feet on the first step down.

She rocked back slightly then gave a couple of good full-body shoves forward before the momentum of her efforts caused the gate to begin to swing slowly open. Her green eyes widened as her front paws scrambled to hold on to the kitchen floor and pull herself forward again, but she pushed herself further away instead. When her back feet slipped off the top step, her front legs were extended as far as they could go, her toes strained to hold on and I could see the concentration on her face.

I was already near hysterics by the time her front paws finally lost contact with the kitchen floor as the gate continued its slow swing away from solid ground. Cleo hung for a moment about a foot above the second step down as the gate came to a stop. She was folded completely in half, her front end on one side of the gate, her back on the other. It looked like she was straining to touch her toes before she managed to slither through, front first, and drop down to the stairs with a gentle thud. As casually as though she was a seasoned celebrity who’d just pulled up to the curb in a limo and was greeting a mob of over-exuberant fans, Cleo hopped up the last couple of steps to the kitchen and sauntered towards her food dish with an air of having everything completely under control.

She hasn’t used the hole in the gate since.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Zen according to Max

Max came to live with us so he could enjoy a quiet and relaxing retirement curled up on fresh blankets in front of our little gas fire. He was treated to almost exactly eleven months of his new peaceful life before the puppy showed up.

We didn’t know how old Max was when we adopted him, but figured by the crook of his back, his bony hips and slightly cloudy brown eyes, he had to be at least ten. He’d spent about five of those years living on the end of a chain with not much to protect him from the elements but a stand of scraggily trees and a ramshackle dog house that flooded in the spring.

His ears, that stand so proudly on top of his head were scaly to the touch. The soft layer of golden brown fur covered what felt like thousands of tiny scabs and scars from endless bug bites sustained throughout the buzzing haze of countless summers. His thick coat, matted and covered in a dirty grey veil that obscured eye catching swirls of caramels and blondes, served as a shield against the icy winter nights which caused my exposed skin to burn almost instantly.

Until Murdoch stormed into his life, I doubt Max ever pined for his thin-walled, rickety old dog house and the solitude that his previous existence afforded him. The minute Max laid eyes on the giant black blur hurtling towards him, however, I think I saw second thoughts flicker across his face.

When the puppy burst through the door ahead of me that day I found him on the side of the road, and slammed into Bear who waited anxiously on the other side, I could see the shock and panic move like a wave from Bear’s face to Max, who stood right behind her and was driven back from the surge at the door. The confusion of the shaggy black tornado ripping his way into their midst made the two dogs pause for a second, but Bear seemed to regain her composure the quickest and wasted no time in snapping and snarling at the puppy.

I expected a similar response from Max, the rough-around-the-edges cowboy who had a wealth of life experience from which to draw, but he seemed to shy away from the confrontation and with a worried expression on his face tried to find a way out of the tiny space at the door.

Outside where there was more room beneath the overcast sky that let through thin, cold rays of sunlight, the puppy was a whirling dervish of teeth. Bear kept up her angry tirades whenever the puppy bounced near. Max seemed at a loss.

“Bark at him,” I told Max. “Growl, snarl, something. You’re twice his size. You’re a big tough German Shepherd!” But he never said a word, just tried to stay out of the way. Whenever the puppy charged him, Max swung himself around awkwardly, his stiff back making him move like a cargo ship turning around in a harbour. He trotted and tripped his way towards me with a pleading look in his eye as if asking me to save him from this terrible beast.

I was deflated by guilt for inflicting this demon dog on everyone. Of all the animals, though, I felt the worst for Max; even more for him than Chestnut who had to go to the vet and be catheterized because we was so stressed out he couldn’t pee. Max’s retirement was ruined. He’d already paid his dues and what was supposed to be his easy last years were suddenly shaping up to be the ultimate insult - a megalomaniac puppy who just walked all over everyone, then bit them for good measure.

I couldn’t understand why Max wouldn’t stand up for himself, it was heartbreaking to watch. It wasn’t until about five months later that I realized if we’d paid attention to Max sooner, life with Murdoch might have been less turbulent; if not in intensity, at least in duration.

What I had taken for Max’s timidity and fear, may have actually been great insight and wisdom. The day I realized what he was doing, Max took a ball Murdoch was playing with. He just walked up and took it in his mouth and wandered off with it, then sat on the driveway with the ball beside him, just sat there, and stared into the trees. Murdoch approached him but wouldn’t get any closer than about three feet away. He circled Max, his head low to the ground as though trying to devise a way to slink into Max’s space and then out again without being noticed. Eventually he gave up, backed off and found something else to do.

I was shocked. With Murdoch’s strength, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to push Max to the ground and steal the ball. It dawned on me then what Max had been doing all along. “You’re brilliant,” I told him and wrapped my arms around his neck.

While the rest of us fought back, yelling or growling, even biting and wrestling with this crazy dog, Max chose to ignore him. It was exactly the right thing to do. The harder Murdoch pushed, the angrier we got. The louder we yelled, the happier he became. He loved it. Murdoch fed off our anger and frustration.

Max figured out way before anyone else did what it was the puppy wanted and pointedly did not give it to him. In that way he quietly commanded Murdoch’s respect and got it.