Monday, June 28, 2010

A dog only a sucker could love

Water sloshes from side to side in the large round metal dish. I hold it with both hands and carry it carefully from the kitchen sink to the stairs down to the entryway. With my knee I bump open the baby gate then descend to Murdoch’s domain where he stands panting loudly, pale pink tongue hanging out the side of his mouth over teeth that seem to define a grin. Through the shaggy black fur on his face, the smile touches his eyes and he looks at me with a gentleness that can only be the result of having been recently run ragged chasing a stick.

I bend down and set the bowl on the floor. It makes a dull boing as the water ripples out from the centre and muffles the sound of metal on linoleum.

“There you go sweetpea,” the words skip easily and cheerily from my mouth and I freeze in the middle of straightening up. I glance sideways at Murdoch with what I’m sure is a look of confusion, if not alarm. Wait a second.


Where the hell did that come from?

Murdoch continues to look at me with a dopey, relaxed expression on his face before casually wandering towards the dish and noisily lapping up water into his giant mouth. I watch him for a minute, this wild-haired, lanky-legged, overgrown creature who has tested my sanity at every turn and I wonder, when did this happen? When did he go from dork face to sweetpea?

Either I had suffered a forgotten blow to the head, Murdoch had finally managed to manipulate my mind, or my true feelings chipped away my stony, no-nonsense facade. Could it be that I actually love this dog?

Somewhere between the wolfish grins, the growling threats and the whiplash, Murdoch has weaseled his way into my heart. Sure, I’m a sucker for a furry face, but those cute, pouty lips, wide eyes and floppy ears only go so far - I know, we’ve reached the limit countless times. What I think is happening here is Murds is slowly morphing into an actual dog. There are even times when I believe he could be a real companion someday - when? I’m not sure, but the potential is there.

The real change in him started not too long ago when he finally figured out how to play fetch and developed a not unhealthy obsession for chasing sticks. I have exploited that obsession at every turn and now just uttering the word ‘stick’ gets his full attention, unless his brain has already shut off because he’s found something else to chase, like a car.

At the end of our road, before the trail into the mountains begins, there is a large patch of mowed groundcover hemmed in on one side by a line of towering pine trees and on the other by a wide-open meadow of waist deep grass. The strip of cropped weeds has become the main destination for Murdoch and me when we go for walks. It is the perfect place for him to run full-out after a stick without having to dash through the over-grown weeds and forest undergrowth of tick country.

This is where Murdoch turns his full attention on me. We’ve done this enough times he knows what’s coming when we reach the end of the road and he sits without being asked. His brown eyes brim with anticipation as he barely keeps the excited shivers from running through his entire body.

I tell him to wait and unhook his leash. He sits up taller, his eyes glued to mine. The world seems breathless for a moment as I hold the pause as long as I can.

“Okay!” I say and Murdoch leaps to his feet. “Find me a stick.”

Murd races to the spot where we’ve stockpiled sticks from numerous visits to this place and he stands tall, tail waving like a flag, eyes on me, waiting.

I pick one out for him and he bounces backwards, keeping an eye on me as we walk to the mowed strip. I launch the stick and Murdoch is flying after it. His feet thunder across the ground and his hair streams behind him. He’s a blur before he stops abruptly and pounces on his prey or snatches it from the air, then turns and speeds back to me with the stick protruding from either side of his goofy grin. I admire his athleticism and laugh at his pure determination to get the stick, even when he trips and falls and tumbles across the ground.

He brings the stick back and happily hands it over so I can throw it again. We could play this game all day I think.

For these brief moments I can imagine Murdoch is a perfect dog and ours is a perfect relationship in which I can call him sweetie and cutie more often than jerk.

Murdoch stops drinking from his dish and looks up at me, water streams from his beard onto the floor and bubbles along his upper lip giving him the equivalent of a milk mustache. I shake my head and roll my eyes but can’t help smiling.

“You’re still a dork,” I tell him as I sit down on the stairs to pet him and he shoves his sopping wet muzzle into my lap.

Monday, June 21, 2010

My darling demon

Murdoch is a master at messing up a good thing. He doesn’t really stay in my good books very long. Just when I think he’s starting to be a regular dog, he has to go and act like a lunatic. I think overall he is getting better, but the thing is, he usually takes one step forward and about 20 steps back.

One day I decided to take Murdoch down the road to a farm where we buy eggs and cheese. It’s about a five minute drive and I figured I could manage five minutes alone with him in the car. Usually we only take him in a vehicle when there’s two of us so one can hold his leash and direct his attention while the other one drives. Morgan took Murdoch by himself one day and almost went off the road as Murdoch lunged across him to bark and intimidate a truck that drove by in the opposite direction.

So, the day I headed out on my own I was armed with treats and drove with the end of Murdoch’s leash in my lap so I could grab it if another car appeared.

We trundled along the undulating gravel road which lay ahead like a ribbon bunched carelessly on the ground. Murdoch sat calmly in the back seat, watching the world flash by outside the window. His tongue lolled lazily out one side of his mouth but his eyes flashed out from his black shaggy face, focused and alert, taking in everything.

When it was still quite a distance ahead I saw the top of a car emerge from behind a hump on the hilly road, bob up and then disappear again between the swells. It was definitely heading in our direction. I glanced in my rearview mirror, confirming Murdoch hadn’t noticed it yet.

“Be a nice boy Murdoch,” I said firmly. “Nice boy.” Then I handed him some treats.

My eyes moved quickly between the approaching car and Murdoch’s image in the mirror. I held some more treats under Murdoch’s nose and continued talking to him. He was fairly intent on what I had in my hand, but as the space between the cars closed quickly, Murdoch’s eyes finally flicked up and focused on the advancing metal beast leaving dust clouds in its wake.

“Hey,” I said sharply as his body stiffened. “Never mind.” Murdoch was clearly torn between the treats in front of him and the fast moving object outside. For a split second I could see the indecision in his eyes, then it cleared as he made his choice. His shaggy muzzle pressed into my hand and he popped the treats into his mouth as the car flashed by the window. He then spun around on the seat to watch the car recede into the distance. It worked. Somehow I managed to keep his attention away from the other car long enough for him to retain his senses.

“Good boy!” I said with great enthusiasm and handed him some more treats.

When we reached the farm, the parking lot was empty and Murdoch was relaxed. I stepped easily from the car, elated at how well Murdoch was behaving himself, told him to wait and entered the small store.

Two minutes later I walked out the door to find Murdoch barking madly and just about throwing himself against the window in the back seat. I was momentarily stunned but when I looked over my shoulder I saw a Jack Russell Terrier-like dog trotting towards me. Great. I turned my back on this new dog and walked towards the car, hoping to out-distance him or that he might change his course, but he followed me and stopped at my feet.

I stood outside the drivers’ side door trying to decide what to do. The small dog was so close to the car now, Murdoch couldn’t see him. I thought I could use that to my advantage. I put my face up to the window, which was open a few inches, and told Murdoch to sit and wait, which he did, but his face reflected the manic energy he was trying to contain.

I opened the door a crack and told him to wait again, then opened it a little wider and slipped myself quickly into the drivers seat, keeping my hand on the door so I could pull it closed behind me in what I hoped would be one fluid motion. I had barely sat down and was swinging the door closed when out of the corner of my eye I saw a black blur as Murdoch’s tail disappeared under the door, followed quickly by a flash of blue as the still-attached leash snaked after him. Before I even knew what was happening, my hand had snagged the end of the leash just as it was about to disappear as well.

All I could hear on the other side of the door as I scrambled back to my feet was guttural snarls and scrabbling claws. “Oh my god, he’s going to eat that dog.” The thought reeled wildly through my mind. I leapt from the car and wrenched on Murdoch’s leash with both hands. I succeeded in pulling him back a pace, but his hackles rose and as he pulled forward again his front legs came up like a rearing horse. His tiny adversary stood his ground and barked angrily back at Murdoch, which just got Murdoch riled up even more.

The little dog’s owner appeared then and casually called him away. I was so jealous as I continued to wrangle my wild beast. As soon as the little dog had trotted around the car and out of sight I was able to get Murdoch’s attention again. Slowly he returned to himself and sat when I told him to, through clenched teeth.

I stood there for a minute taking deep breaths and trying to disperse the adrenaline that still coursed through every cell in my body. I felt half crazy and ready to snap. Beside me Murdoch sat calmly, the intensity of a moment before brushed aside and a familiar expression of utter innocence sweeping across his face.

"What?" He seemed to say, "I didn't do anything." I glared sideways at him and tried for the millionth time to think of a good reason why this dog is in my life.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Forest rain

In the forest, rain is almost magical. It tumbles down through a mass of green leaves and tree branches and undergrowth, filling the spaces with a whimsical energy. A hundred different hues and tones glow with their own light in this new water-soaked world, lush and energized and begging to be explored.

It was on one such day almost a year ago when I felt that pull to be out in the rain. It was the kind of rain that is too alive to ignore, too frivolous not to go out and play.

I watched the first drops fall as I looked out the window into the trees. It wasn’t long before the initial sprinkle became a more insistent, more determined clatter on the roof, then before my eyes it deepened to a torrential downpour, becoming almost a living thing moving through the forest. Out in the open, over the road, it was a white sparkling shower and I scrambled to pull on my rain gear.

The dogs watched eagerly as I got ready, as excited as I was to be outside. They clamoured forward to get my attention and I felt envious of them. Besides getting Max into his wheelchair, the dogs were ready to go. They didn’t need raincoats and rain pants or umbrellas or boots. Suddenly I felt rather cumbersome.

Outside the rain came down in great sheets from the sky. It pattered on the hood of my raincoat and gathered in glassy globs along the front edge, before letting go and dripping past my nose towards the ground.

Bear, Max and Murdoch gathered around me as we stepped from our driveway to the road. Water beaded on their fur, sparkling as though they had dressed up for the occasion. We stopped on the road and I turned to look the length of it while the dogs ate grass and licked rainwater from the spade-shaped leaves of weeds at the edge of the ditch. I couldn’t really see much farther than twenty feet ahead. It was like trying to look through an opaque curtain.

The rain wasn’t hard-driving, but it fell fast and each drop so close together, one right after another, they seemed to fall in rods directly from the sky to the ground with no breaks in between. But it was a bright rain, the day did not darken with ominous clouds blocking every scrap of light from the hidden sun. The very air shimmered with a grey, silvery light reflected from a thousand drops of falling water. In the distance, vague, dark shapes gave the only indication of trees that marched the length of the road to the trail at the end.

We walked through the warm, heavy, summer rain. My rubber boots squelched over the dark brown, saturated road. Inside my hood, the swishing of my rain pants and arms of my coat were amplified while the sound of the dogs’s feet blended in with the chatter of the rain as it hit the road. I could just make out the squeak of Max’s wheelchair as it rolled along beside me.

The four of us wandered down that road as if we were on a grand adventure. A shared giddiness bounced between us, encircled us, and reflected back from the rain.

The day smelled like spring, the air scrubbed clean by the heavy, fast-falling raindrops and we moved through it as though seeing everything for the first time. On the trail amongst the trees we were sheltered a little by reaching branches packed with leaves. The vibrant greens shivered with the rhythm of raindrops falling, collecting on their surface and then running to the edge and pouring over the side.

Beneath the forest canopy the dogs stopped to drink out of every puddle and ripped mouthfuls of fresh grasses from where they grew along the side of the trail. I wandered slowly along the path which had become soft underfoot, breathing deeply of earthy green and crisp pine scents. For a moment it felt as though the world had orchestrated the day just for us as we moved through the damp air and mingled with the rain-enhanced spirit of the forest.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bear gets a bed, sort of

About three months after we moved to Thunder Bay, Morgan and I inherited a bunch of furniture from one or our neighbours, a couple who were returning to their native Nova Scotia. Among the bulky furniture they didn’t want to take with them was a double bed. Up until that point Morgan and I had been sleeping on an inflatable air mattress which, though it was fairly comfortable, was a bit like sleeping on a waterbed when one of us rolled over, got out of the bed or into it. The air rumbled around in that thing like a brewing storm. The real bed was a nice change.

Bear appreciated it too. The air mattress sat on a frame that was quite a bit taller than a regular bed frame and made the jump up more challenging for her. When we set up the “new” bed, Bear was ecstatic, leaping onto it and standing in the middle of the mattress, tail swinging wildly from side to side as though claiming it as her own. At the very least she was sure one-third of it belonged to her.

I suppose she would be right in thinking that. Just about every morning we invited Bear onto the bed between us for Bear sandwiches. She would flip onto her back, big floppy feet waving around in the air while we rubbed her belly, hugged her and told her how wonderful she is; mostly fulfilling what I’m sure she felt was her birth right, which made it all the more difficult to turn her away when she stated her belief that we should all be sleeping on the bed together all the time.

Quite often after we tucked her in for the night on the couch and lay reading in bed we would hear the squeak of couch springs followed by the galumph of her feet hitting the floor. A purposeful march of paws on plywood picked out a straight line to our room then stopped abruptly as Bear stood on the threshold staring at us, ears set seriously, squaring her face while her eyes focused almost accusingly on our own.

We told her she was a good girl and should go back to the couch. Usually we’d have to tell her at least twice before she’d drop her head, roll her eyes and turn on her heel with as much attitude as a teenager who’s just been given an earlier curfew. Morgan and I couldn’t help smiling at each other and shaking our heads when the couch creaked again under her weight, followed by a loud floomph as she flopped herself into her spot, then a few grumbles and grunts, as though muttering under her breath the injustice of having to sleep on the couch when clearly she belonged on the bed.

Sometimes during the night, when the house was in darkness, the bedroom door would issue a whispering squeak as it swung slowly open. I knew Bear had nudged it with her nose and I lay listening for the sound of her feet on the wooden floor. After a few seconds’ silence I would hear a tiny clip of the toenails of one foot grazing the floor as Bear took a tentative step into the room. It was different from the regular clip-clopping of her nails when she walked and I imagined her trying to tip her toes up off the ground to walk silently on her pads.

Then the sound of the next foot treading lightly into the room. She continued this slow pace, quietly clipping over the floor and taking forever to tiptoe her way around the bed that filled almost all the space in the tiny room. I lay there beneath the covers, eyes open in the darkness, stifling a laugh.

Then I would feel the weight of her head on the bed beside me, quietly trying to get my attention and coax an invitation to climb under the covers.

If I ignored her, she’d eventually sink to the floor beside me, her front feet rasping forward across the rough, painted surface. The sound was accompanied by a loud exhaling of air which stopped with the clunk of her elbows making contact with the floor, and then was punctuated by a grumble as she settled her head onto her paws.

If it was clear she intended to stay on the cold floor beside me for the night, I would turn to her and tell her to go back to the couch at which point she snapped to her feet, wagging her tail with a thump, whump rhythm as it made contact with first the wall and then the side of the bed. She then thrust her nose towards me in excitement as though she hadn’t heard what I’d said but if I was awake then surely the negotiations could begin. To sweeten the deal she threw in a kiss.

“No Bear,” I would say. “Go sleep on the couch.” Then the heartbreaking silence as her tail stopped wagging and I imagined it hanging limply behind her. But in the next breath her tail would start up again with a renewed enthusiasm and she’d stomp her foot loudly as if to say, ‘oh, you’re kidding right?’

“No Bear, on the couch,” more firmly this time.

The space between my side of the bed and the wall couldn’t have been more than a foot wide, not enough room for Bear to turn around, so with loud clomping steps she backed up the length of the bed, bumping it with a bargey wiggle as she made her best attempt to storm from the room in a huff. She was clearly extra frustrated because she had to walk backwards, which included navigating the corner where she sometimes stopped and just about bent herself in half trying to turn around in the extra fraction of space found there.

I know she was trying to be terribly serious and make a point, but every time this scenario played out I couldn’t help laughing even though I did feel sad for poor, lonely Bear. I would have loved to invite her onto the bed but there just wasn’t enough room for the three of us, considering Bear has no concept of sharing and is the biggest bedhog in the world. Plus, I don’t think Morgan would have taken too kindly to me asking him to sleep on the couch to make room for the dog.