Lessons From an Old Dog
“Hey, you stupid pup, don’t you go chasing that thing. You’ll regret it, I promise you.”
The half grown male looked in his direction. “Who do you think you are anyway?”
“Somebody with some experience. Come on over here.”
The younger dog complied. The old one remained lying in dewy grass soaking up the early morning sun. The young pup had already acknowledged his authority, so there was no need to get up.
“Okay, Gramps, what’s the story?”
“The name’s Scruffy, and I’m not your gramps. Not possible; vets took care of that when I was about your age.”
The pup introduced himself as Mutt and repeated, “So what’s the story?”
“If you really think you’ll listen, you could learn from my mistakes, Mutt. Save yourself a lot of pain maybe.”
Scruffy thought the pup’s eyes showed skepticism, but he began anyway.
I was born not all that far from this lake. Spent the summer of my puppy-hood here with my humans. They don’t stay here but in the summer. Anyhow, that first summer was great. I chased rabbits, squirrels, deer, anything that ran. Never caught anything, but I didn’t care. It was the fun of the case.
Now, I’m a retriever by birth—both sides. Mom was a Golden Retriever and she told us that our dad was a Black Lab. Last thing I remember her telling me was, “Now, do what your humans say and always bring back what they want.”
Turned out not to be such good advice. Or else I misunderstood what she meant. The first time my male human went out in that boat over there, I naturally swam after it to bring it back to shore. He didn’t seem to like that much, but he pulled me into the boat, yelling when I shook all over.
Now, I never have figured out why humans get so angry when a dog shakes off after a swim. What do they expect us to do? The one time I tried to grab a towel (like they do) from the rod by the toilet water bowl, I got whacked in the nose for my trouble. The whole drying off bit is a no win situation.
The boat was kind of wobbly, but I managed to settle down in the bottom, glad to me close to my human. After a while, the boat stopped moving and he picked up this long stick in his hand. He flung it with his arm and a little thing went flying out and plopped into the water. Remembering my mother’s words, I jumped out of the boat and swam over to retrieve it.
The minute I clamped down on what I thought I was supposed to retrieve, I knew something was wrong. I felt a sharp pain in my lip and my human was yelling like crazy. I swam back, confused and hurting. My human pulled me back into the boat, muttering things no polite dog would say. I tried to sit still; I really tried. Dripping water all over (more muttering from my human) he took the thing (which he called a fishing lure) out of my lip. I decided it was best not to shake right then and lay down in the bottom of the boat. He took the boat back to shore, held me by the collar and pulled me over to the place with the chain on the stake. There I sat, wet and miserable, as I watched him leave in the boat again, without me. Later, he came back with a long wiggling thing he called a Pike, which he proudly presented it to my female human.
I lay low, as humble as possible, while I smelled that Pike roasting over the charcoal grill. I stayed in that humble position looking with longing at that fish, and, guess what? I got a few tasty scraps.
So, Mutt, don’t ever try to bite on those things that go out from the long sticks with strings that humans call fishing poles. And, don’t jump up to grab their food. Wait politely, using your really-sorry-can’t-you-see-it-eyes, and you’ll get what you want every time.
Several weeks later, my humans packed up their truck, closed up the cottage and drove away from the lake I’d come to love. They drove for two, long, long, boring days during which I was never off my leash. After the freedom of running around the lake and woods, it was a total bummer.
Mutt took the occasion to ask, “Why did you have to leave?”
Scruffy sighed before answering. “I didn’t understand that first year, but my humans were teachers and they had to leave their vacation place on that northern lake to begin another school year.” Both dogs stretched, rolled over in the now dry grass. Mutt heard a distant whistle.
“That’s my master,” he said. “I’ve got to go.”
“Yeah, you do that. Come back tomorrow morning and I’ll tell you more.”
The next morning, Mutt showed up at precisely the same time. Scruffy was in the exact same spot and resumed his story.
We arrived at a place where there were houses everywhere, and all kinds of new smells. I jumped from the truck to explore but that leash caught me up short. In addition, the air was hotter and stuffier than I had ever experienced before. I spent most days stretched out on the cool dirt beneath a bush in the corner of a fenced-in yard. Early in the morning, or later in the evening, my humans would take me for a walk on the leash. I met other dogs, but it was hard to get to know them when our humans kept pulling at our leashes.
On top of that, when I was allowed into the cool of the house, I was only allowed in the kitchen and dining room. At the lake, they would use these little gate things to keep my in the entry way at night, but otherwise, I had the run of the cottage. It was quite an adjustment.
And, they had this other furry pet at the city house, a cat named Squeaker. The first time I saw her, I got really excited, thinking I had a new playmate. Boy was I wrong!
That cat took one look at me, and with a long drawn out hiss, announced, “Listen you lowly little fur ball, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll do exactly as I say. I’ve been in this house a lot longer than you and I rule everything here. I am absolute power.”
The space between the living room and dining room was much wider than a door. In the beginning, I got around every barrier my humans put up. I chased that arrogant cat from one end of the house to the other. But every time I did, I got sent out into the heat as punishment.
It was a sad day when they found a way to hook two wide gates together. They climbed over the barrier. I tried everything, but I couldn’t get around it. It was taller than I was and scratching at the base got me sent outside every time.
That darn cat would parade around in front of me, glaring at me with distain. “I told you I ruled this house.”
For a long time, all I could do was put up with it if I wanted to stay cool on those few days when my humans were at home. As the days dragged on, I noticed two things: the mid-day heat became more tolerable and I grew to match the height of the gates separating me from that obnoxious cat. The day came (about the same time that the
weather cooled off to where it had been up at the lake) that I could put my head over the top of it.
I began to plan my revenge. I scratched a mark into the bark of one of the trees in the middle of the yard about the same height as the gate. Each day I would run and jump as I passed that tree, checking to see if my back feet went higher than the mark. I was practicing one day when the cat appeared in the window sill, staring at me like I was crazy. She shook her head and rolled her eyes, then returned to grooming her fur.
“Just you wait,” I barked at her.
Oh, that day was sweet. I was inside, resting under the kitchen table, waiting for the perfect moment. When the cat ventured out into the living room, I waited still, letting her think she had won. Only when she was well toward the far end of the living room did I make my move. I leapt to my feet, ran through the dining room, and sailed over that gate as if it weren’t even there.
“Now who’s the best?” I bellowed at that cat, chasing her all around the living room, down the hall and into the farthest bedroom where she disappeared under the bed. I barked a few more times just for good measure, trotted back down the hall, leaped over the gate again, and sat by the back door since I knew I’d be sent out.
Panting with pride, I marched out into the yard. I didn’t care about being “punished” that time. It was delightfully cool outside and the squirrels were turning out to be great playmates. That cat learned a thing or two about humility that day! She was pretty careful about showing her snooty face in the living room after that.
“Hey, Mutt, there’s your master’s whistle again. Remember now, be patient, and the world will be yours.”
Mutt headed for home. “See you tomorrow.”
“Come with me into the woods,” Scruffy told Mutt the next morning. “Have to show you something.”
Mutt followed the old dog as obediently as he did his human. They trotted about half a mile into the woods. Scruffy stopped at the base of a tree that had strips of bark missing. Scruffy lifted his nose to point up into the jack pine.
Pay attention now, pup, because I didn’t have anybody to teach me about the kind of critter that eats bark like this, the same kind you were about to chase the day we met.
It was the summer after I taught that cat a lesson in humility. I was still feeling like I was king of the world when we got back up here. One of those prickly things dared to take some scraps from my food dish which was over by the shed, right at the edge of the woods. I was soaking up some sun half the yard away, but I had my eye on it.
Now, I usually let the squirrels and chippies have a bite or two, just so I can get in a good game of chase, but I didn’t like the look of that fat thing with the spiky fur-do. Little punk gave me a look that reminded me of the cat in the city. I took off after him. Figured that slow-moving thing would be an easy catch.
Got my mouth around him right before he could scuttle up a tree.
And I let go just as quickly!
Those darn spiky things came right out of him and stuck in to my nose and lip! I couldn’t believe the pain. It was about a million times worse than that fishing lure. I yelped and howled. The more I tried to rub the things against the ground to get rid of them, the worse the pain got, and the madder I got. I started trying to climb up that tree after that hoodlum of a critter. And it clung to the tree trunk just above my reach, making hissing noises that sounded like laughing.
My humans came running, and tried to get me away from the tree. Just then the critter lost his grip and fell to the ground right in front of me.
“What did you do to me, you insolent little thief?” I howled. Then I made yet another mistake and tried to bite him again.
And got a bigger mouthful of screaming needles, this time sticking into the top of my mouth and my tongue, too. I let go and slumped down, yelping in the most awful pain I had ever experienced.
My humans didn’t have to pull me away that time. I wanted to get out of there. But then I heard the word “vet.” Now, I never had trusted a vet before then. Seemed like every time my human took me to one of them, I got stuck with a needle. One time I got left there for a whole day and when I woke up, I was missing a couple of my most important body parts. You better keep an eye on yours!
But the pain in my nose and mouth was so great I was beginning to think I wouldn’t care if the vet cut off half my face, as long as the pain stopped.
Well, I’m happy to tell you that I now trust vets. Everything went black for a long time, but when I woke up, all those sharp things (which I found out were called quills)
were gone and I still had my nose. I felt all woozy for a while, and had trouble keeping my tongue inside my mouth, but my humans were really nice to me. I got a lot of special treats—bits of meat and cheese wrapped around some medicine the vet wanted me to take.
Justice prevailed. A neighbor of my humans shot that juvenile delinquent of a porcupine (the name of that critter you were about to chase) for his assault on me.
But I learned my lesson, too, and so should you. Chase the squirrels, chippies, rabbits, deer, and anything else that runs. Have a good time with the game, but never, never, try to chase or bite a porcupine!
Scruffy led Mutt back to the warm sun at the edge of the lake. Then he demonstrated the joy of jumping into the water from the end of the dock. But Scruffy’s energy gave out long before Mutt’s did. After a jump or two, and a good shake, Scruffy lay down in the sun at the edge of the water and watched the youngster as the man who was Mutt’s master joined them on the beach.
Scruffy and Mutt were camp buddies for a few more summers. Then, as must always happen, Scruffy’s pain from arthritis in his back and hind quarters grew unbarable. He no longer fell for the tricks of wrapping pills in sausage, eggs or cheese. He stopped chasing squirrels and chippies—even when they came right up on the porch a few feet from his nose. He was telling us to trust a vet one last time. We remember him fondly. (Scruffy Frontiera: May 2001-Sep. 2012)