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.


  1. Morgan ...the couch killerMarch 2, 2010 at 7:45 PM

    Damn...my eyes welled up in reading that

    I so rarely take the time to investigate Heathers world from ground (or dog) level. Too busy with work, Volkswagen stuff, or sometimes those are just cover stories for being "dogged" out occasionally. Not to mention anything ground level is usually yellow or brown this time of year, and really best left alone.

    Yes sometimes it is all just a little too much, and other days I feel like teaching Murdoch to drive the car. He could sit on my lap and I'll work the pedals. We could give Heather a break and take Bear and Max for ice cream. Afterwards I could put my arms around him and tell him he is a good boy, when Bear isn't looking of course.

    Mostly I have been done with getting angry, or annoyed with Murds for sometime now. Finally accepting my fate, my quest for dog hair long since complete and stacked up uncerimoniously in the corner. Like a trophy for eigth place in a seven person tug of war, just gathering dust in the corner.

    In combination with the way life goes, once and a while we get a chance to learn important lesons before time slips through our grasp.

    While I may not admit this to Heather, I think Max just out smarted me again :)

  2. Quiet Buddha outwits dark Kurtz - quite an interesting entry to read! You write here with targeted energy and concrete lucidity - my eyes slid down the page quickly and smoothly. It's so easy to slip into your animal world with all its complicated personalities and various disruptions. Writing with apparent ease, and with a large heart wrapped firmly around all three dogs, you breathe real life into these pets who become well-rounded, distinctly individualized characters. Even without the photo [which by the way makes me want to hug Max, something I can assure you I have never wanted to do to any Shepherd], Max is clearly visible, fully realized in both shape and nature. I was only too pleased when the conclusion reveals that old silent Max had bested the buffeting and boundless youth of Murdoch.

    PS. Morgan, stop fixing ailing cars - you write with a winning smile and a sharp pen. Two writers in one family - I fully expect Bear to write the next entry. Ha!

  3. what a great story!! And how true is that...never under-estimate the intelligence of an old dog....