Dogs I Knew Somewhere
A three-part story about the dogs in my life and about never wanting to miss the dance.
Part I – Rusty
I remember a stray dog that had been taken in by my uncle, who lived in the farmyard across the road from our yard. I am not sure of the breed of the dog but he appeared to be a mix of some sort of collie, with a dash of spaniel and a sprinkling of lab plus a light touch of sinister and evil. My uncle found him in a small bluff of marsh willows out in the pasture. The dog’s foot had been injured and he was obviously starving. Uncle Harry nursed him back to health and fed him until he had regained much of his lost weight. The dog naturally became very fond of my uncle and he followed him loyally around the farm and into the barn and out in the grain fields. He became my uncle’s protector and body-guard. If anyone so much as spoke loudly to my uncle or tried to sit in his favorite chair, the dog would intervene with a bark, a menacing growl and finally a little snap with his teeth. Because of this routine, the dog was eventually named, “Nipper”. Old Nipper had the run of the farm for a couple of years and became very skilled at killing rats and chasing escaped pigs back into the outside fenced enclosure.
Near the end of Nipper’s reign as farmyard king, my aunt from town decided to surprise my brother and sister and I with a brand-new dog. We picked up the second dog as a pup from a farm near to a neighbouring town. On the day that we picked out the dog, all of the little pups in the litter came running out of their kennel to greet us. The only thing each of them lacked was a little sign saying, “Pick me, pick me.” We pondered over the six pups as they rubbed against our legs and jumped and nibbled at our hands. They were all so active and cute. The decision of which one to take was a difficult one. Just as we were about to settle on a “painted” pup, a seventh son emerged from the kennel – I would imagine to see what all the excitement was. He yawned and stretched and then trotted and staggered in little side-winder puppy steps toward his brothers and sisters. He was so, so cute. The choice was easy from that point. We took him home with us and we named him “RUSTY”.
Rusty was mostly a cocker spaniel and possessed the most playful, obedient and gentle nature you could ever imagine. He shared his love equally amongst all of us kids and everyone else on the farm. We all grew up with him and he grew up with us. He lived to be quite old and I think he had a very happy life on the farm. He was, of course, tuned in on a regular basis, by Nipper, who still ruled the farm roost. I always thought that old Nipper made Rusty’s life miserable. But, when Nipper finally died, Rusty spent days searching the former haunts for any sign of his one-time pal. Rusty was now the new monarch and dressed accordingly to fit into his new role.
Rusty lived on the farm with us from the time I was in Grade four until well into my own young adult farming years. He was faithful, loyal and intelligent. He never lost his playfulness or his desire to just be around all of us. One day when he was very old, I was picking up straw bales from a section of land about two miles away from the farm yard, and Rusty, of course, wanted to come with me in the truck. Unfortunately, he was no longer able to jump or even climb onto the front seat like he used to be able to do. So, I had to pick him up and lift him into the vehicle. Each time I stopped to gather a stook of bales, I would go around to the passenger door of the truck and lift Rusty out. He would wander around, sniffing everything in the vicinity of the truck. When I finished forking the bales from the stack, I would call him over to the truck and then lift him in. He would sit on the seat beside me and look out the window or he would look at me and then flop down and put his head on my lap and leave it there until we arrived at the next pile of bales. Then I would lift him out, and the whole routine would be repeated. At one of the stops I lifted him out and went to work loading the bales. When it came time to lift him back in, he was gone. I was near a bluff of trees so I thought he must have gone into the trees to investigate. I went in and looked and looked. I called his name over and over but, I wasn’t able to find him. I don’t know how long I searched for him, but finally I took the bales back to the farm yard and got my brother. We both went back to the spot where I had last seen him and we looked some more. We never did find him. I figured that he knew his time was up, so he just wandered off by himself and died somewhere – trying to make it as easy as he could on all of us. That’s the kind of dog Rusty was. As I climbed back into my truck, realizing that I had seen the last of my dog, I cried and I swore that I would never take on another pet in my life.
Part II – Gretel
Another dog came into my life a year or so after Rusty had gone away. Gretel, Gretel, Gretel! What can I say about Gretel? She was definitely the biggest dog I have ever had as a pet. She was 75% St. Bernard and 25% Collie. She came into my life as a present from my sister and brother-in-law. Apparently they took me seriously when I told them one evening that I would really like to have another dog – but, this time, a St. Bernard, preferably one with a brandy keg around its neck and capable of saving me in case of an avalanche in the heart of the Canadian prairies.
When Gretel first arrived on the scene, she was welcomed into the farmhouse with open arms. She was a very loveable and rambunctious butterball of fluff. She did get to come into the kitchen once in awhile, but, more often than not, she was encouraged to stay on the mat inside the back door of the house. When she got older, this was not much of a problem and she learned where she was supposed to be and never really tested her boundaries. However, when she was younger and not really sure of her place, she would “inch” her way across the kitchen floor until she had fully invaded the room and our hearts.
My sister and her husband had a full-grown cocker spaniel which was about the same size as Gretel the puppy. They would play with each other and often get into a tug-of-war of some sort. Gretel would always approach the tussle from the point of view of playing. I am not sure that the cocker spaniel looked at things in quite the same way. For her it was more of a test of dominance.
When Gretel was still a puppy, she would always find a way of getting in the middle of things that were happening. One evening, my dad had to do a repair job on the water trap under the kitchen sink. While he was on his back on the kitchen floor with his head in the cupboard, Gretel climbed into the space with him. He would turn the tightening nut on the drain pipe a quarter of a turn and then push Gretel out of the way. Gretel would come back in and lick his face and my dad would turn the nut another quarter of a turn and then push Gretel out of the way. This little routine went on until the job was finally finished.
Gretel was born in late September (a Libra, if you are keeping track), and arrived at our farm, seven weeks later, in early November, 1974. Because of her autumn birthday, she was not accustomed to summer storms and thus never really experienced thunder and lightning. By June of 1975, our little St. Bernard had become our big St. Bernard. She was big enough, in fact, to take on some of the biggest meanest pigs we had in our barn. Boars, sows, roosters, coyotes – it didn’t matter, if they gave her a rough time, or if she just plain felt like it, she would chase them until she had had enough. She had a presence, and her size was plenty imposing. No, Gretel was not afraid of anything – anything, that is, except thunder.
At the first hint of a low-pressure cell moving into the area, Gretel would start to get a little antsy. If a roll of thunder could be heard in the distance, she would stand up on her mat and begin to whimper a little. On the first bolt of lightning and subsequent clap of thunder she would turn in circles and scratch at the door to get outside or at the baby-gate to get into the house to find some refuge. She would moan and pant and toss and turn until the storm was over when she would once again become her big brave self. On June 4th 1976, a tornado and an accompanying thunderstorm passed through our farm. Gretel went through all the stages of her anxiety as the storm intensified. Finally, a bolt of lightning hit the house and, at the same time, a section of barn roof broke loose, flew through the yard and clipped the eve of the house on its way into another county. All of the noise and vibrations were just too much for Gretel to take. She rose to her feet, circled once and then crashed through the baby gate as if it were a thin fixture of balsa wood. As she circled through the house wearing the scissor-style gate around her neck like a collar, the front picture window heaved and sighed in an out with each swirl of the wind outside. She yelped and whined and then finally came to rest in the metal stand under the television set. She gave other good performances during other storms in her lifetime, but that night was definitely her best.
Gretel liked to see the world around her. She loved running to the top of a hill, or jumping up in the back of a truck to get a better view of things. My brother-in-law drove a bright blue Mercury Cougar. He and my sister would spend a lot of weekends at the farm and would leave their car in the driveway beside the house when they came to visit. One night we all went to a dance at Danceland at a nearby lake. Seven of us drove there in my parents big car. A few hours later, when we returned, our headlights shone on the Cougar in the driveway. There on top of the car was perched Gretel. She had finally chased down a “Cougar”, to add to her many other historic trophies. This dog also loved riding inside of vehicles. She had to be in the back of the truck when anyone left the yard. If she wasn’t, she would chase the vehicle as far as possible in order to catch a ride.
She also loved hockey. Each winter, we would build a skating rink at the farm. We hosted some great hockey games on those rinks. Friends and relatives would come out to the farm to play hockey on pretty much a daily basis. Gretel had a part to play as well. She would run along the side of the rink and follow the play. Back and forth she would go with each direction-change of the hockey-puck. She barked as the puck was stick-handled and she barked when the puck was passed from one player to another and then she barked when the puck was shot on goal. The only time she stopped barking was when the puck flew over the boards and into a distant snow bank. At that, she would run madly to the entry-point of the puck in the snow and begin to dig. She would dig furiously until she located the puck, then she would thrust her broad muzzle into the snow and pull out the black rubber disk. She would then bring it back to the skating rink and drop it on the ice so that we could resume play. It was definitely handy to have her around. The only problem was, that in the space, distance and time between finding the hockey pucks and returning them to the ice surface, she would chew them in her powerful mouth. By the end of the winter, all of our hockey pucks looked like hamburgers.
Somewhere along the way, Gretel became interested in rocks. She wasn’t into pebbles or stones. She was interested in rocks – big rocks. Perhaps it was her summer sport in lieu of chasing hockey pucks in the winter. She would dig them up from the neighbouring fields and bring them back into the yard. There was a small fresh-water pond inside the yard. If we would throw one of Gretel’s rocks into the pond, she would run in, dive under water if necessary to locate the rock, dig away at it and then clamp it in her teeth and finally bring it back to her collection.
The fact that Gretel liked rocks, also came in handy when visitors came into the farm yard. Being mostly St. Bernard, Gretel was a big dog, of course. Sometimes when people came to the farm, they would be afraid to get out of their vehicle because our dog was able to look directly into their window and stare them down, as it were. As soon as she heard the click of a door handle, she would start to bark. And, she would continue to bark until one or more of the guests actually got out of their car and offered themselves as a human sacrifice to the slobber gods situated in her massive mouth. Occasionally, Gretel would stand and lick the closed window of the car in an effort to entice its owner to venture forth from its safety and receive the same treatment. We knew that Gretel had no intention of harming visitors – she was just big and loud and therefore perceived by them as being scary. So we eventually stumbled on the fact that we could throw a trophy piece from the dog’s rock collection into the pond and she would automatically leave everything behind in order to jump into the water and rescue the rock. This would give the person in the car enough time to get out and scamper into the house, free from Gretel's pant-tugging and hand-washing.
Gretel was a loyal guardian of the farm and she kept any unwanted strangers and salesmen at bay. Most were not brave enough to take her on. If no one came out of the house or barn to throw a rock for distraction-sake, then they usually waited in their car for a few minutes before finally leaving for safer pastures.
From time to time, some of the neighbours’ dogs would make their way to our farm to visit Gretel. She was never spayed and during her times of estrus, her 'fragrance' would attract any males that happened to be in the vicinity. She never roamed herself during those times. It was always an outsider that came to call on her. She usually did not allow the male dogs to mate with her though, and for the first nine years of her life she never became pregnant. On one occasion however, when she was just about ten years old, a little male dachshund from a farm two miles south of ours, dropped by while Gretel was in breeding condition. Gretel seemed receptive to the smaller dog, but because of the huge size difference, they were unable to consummate the relationship. The dachshund followed Gretel around for the better part of a day with nothing but tired feet, to show for his many footsteps. At one point, with some curiosity, I stepped outside of the barn in response to some yapping from the smaller dog. Gretel had backed up to a straw bale on which the wiener dog was standing. This gave him the opportunity to ‘mount’ our St. Bernard with a bit more success. The sight was an unforgettable one with Gretel out front and her head high in the air, and the little dog, hanging on for dear life to both Gretel and the bale.
As there seemed to be more male dogs coming to call on our dog around that time, we decided that it would be a good idea to have her spayed. When we took her to the veterinary clinic to have the doctor perform the operation, we received news that she was, in fact, pregnant. We chose not to let her have the incumbent litter because of her age. The vet agreed with us on the decision and not just because of her age, but because he thought the pups might be rather susceptible to problems, considering who the father was. So, the pups were aborted and Gretel was spayed. But, she was getting old and within a year or so, she lost the use of her hind legs. Her hips gave out and she just couldn’t ride around in the farm trucks like she used to and we could see how sad she looked whenever one of us would drive out of the yard without her. Finally, we had to make that horrible last trip into the animal hospital to have her put down. I felt bad that I wasn’t there for her at the end. I had left the farm and had become a teacher. My niece, who was the same age as Gretel (but not in dog years), and who basically grew up with Gretel, wrote to tell me that it was a sad day at the farm – because our dog had to be put to sleep. I remember feeling far away from the farm and even further away from my Gretel and all of the great memories I had of her. As I put down my niece's letter, I cried and I again swore that I would never take on another pet in my life.
Part III – Charlie
If Rusty had been the calm, relaxed dog at one vertex of the pet triangle, and Gretel had been the strong and loyal matriarch at another corner, then ‘Charlie’ was the wild, rambunctious yellow lab at the complete opposite end. I didn’t really want a dog at the time I picked up Charlie, but I felt sorry for him because he was raised in the city and kept in a little shed out in a friend’s back yard. There was a swimming pool on the premises and one night, one of Charlie’s little sisters, got out of the shed and fell into the swimming pool. The pool cover was on, and the pup got caught underneath it. Unable to get herself out, she drowned. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to the rest of the litter, so I helped my friend, and found homes for the remaining five pups. The four black ones went to good homes on farms outside the city. I took the yellow lab for myself.
Throughout his life, Charlie was overly playful. He learned to sing along with me while I played the harmonica. He loved to run as fast as he could for as long as he could and then drop, and roll around on his back. He was afraid of walking on a shiny flat surface of any sort, so I always had to pick him up and carry him (even at a young age) across any linoleum or tiled floors. He also loved chasing porcupines and skunks. One of the times he was sprayed by a skunk, I decided to give him a bath in tomato juice. I had heard that, if you washed a skunk-sprayed dog in a bath-tub full of tomato juice, the odor of the skunk would magically disappear. I bought a case of canned tomato juice and filled the bath-tub. I was finally able to get him into the shiny, slippery, red, juice-filled bath-tub, and give him a couple of scrubs when he decided that this was not for him. He bolted through my grasp, made his way into the living room, shook himself violently in order to get rid of any extra tomato juice, and then plunged through the screen on the front door on his way to another encounter with some other creature from the wild. Rather than searching for the dog, I spent the remainder of the day, cleaning tomato spatter off of everything in the bathroom, the hallway and the living room. On top of it all, the house smelled like skunk for two weeks after that.
On an occasion, where I rescued Charlie from another one of his many battles with porcupines, he had completely lost his senses in repeated attempts to get the better of the porcupine. In the end, his entire face, head, chest and underbelly were thickly covered with quills. He had quills in his eyes and ears and down his throat. His front legs looked as though he had grown another layer of hair. He was unable to walk on one front paw because it was full of quills. I honestly figured it was the end for him, but I phoned the Animal Hospital anyway, to see if anything could be done. It was a Sunday on top of it all, and the Vet was busy watching his favorite team play football on television. When the doctor arrived to meet me at the clinic, he was let out of his car by his wife. He had been drinking while watching the game apparently and was in no shape to be driving. He looked at Charlie and thought for a moment. I fully expected to hear him say, “I guess we are going to have to put this guy down.” But, he didn’t say that. He looked at my dog and shook his finger at him, saying, “You silly, silly puppy. You have been such a bad boy!!” When we got into the clinic, Charlie of course, would not walk across the reception room floor, so I had to carry him to the operating room and put him on the shiny stainless-steel table. His toenails clicked and slipped and scratched when they hit the smooth flat surface. I tightened my grip to hold him there and picked up a few quills of my own from the ones that had gone through the dog’s ears and skin and out the other side. The vet gave the dog an anesthetic and then handed me a pair of pliers. He said that I was going to have to be the one to pull out the quills, because he was far too drunk to attempt it. About two hours later, the job was done and Charlie was ready for his next adventure.
In the coming weeks, I built a huge dog fence around part of the yard so that Charlie would not escape and try to find another porcupine or skunk. It worked pretty well for a few months and my dog seemed to be happy to run around wildly and freely in the spacious fenced-in area of the yard. However, when winter came along, it brought with it a few heavy snowfalls and some gusty winds. By early spring, snow drifts had built up along one side of the fence. The prevailing winds tempered the drifts into rock-hard launching ramps. I looked out the window one day to catch a last glimpse of Charlie as he scampered up the snow drift, over the fence in a single bound and finally into the air like a massive dragon, off to scorch another enemy. He didn’t return for about ten days. Because it was calving season for some of the neighbouring ranchers, I naturally thought that he would probably be seen as a predator of newborn calves by the farmers and subsequently shot on sight. I had basically given up hope of ever seeing him again. On returning home one day, I pulled into the yard and who should I see but good old Charlie. He rushed to greet me and I, him. I checked him over and he didn’t smell like a skunk. He didn’t have any porcupine quills protruding from any part of him and he had not been shot, so I assumed that he was alright. I brought him into the house to examine him closer. I pulled a welcome mat onto the middle of the kitchen floor and carried him to the mat. While standing over him, ready to start my inspection, he began to heave. He heaved again, and what happened next was perhaps the most surreal pet experience I have ever witnessed. His jaws opened to an impossible angle and an unfathomable volume of red and purple and blue and grey membranous jelly exploded out of his mouth and into a life-like blob onto the linoleum at my feet. It was sort of like a cross between something I had seen in the movies, “The Exorcist” and “Alien”. Apparently, he had indeed taken part in the calving season at some neighbouring ranch and had eaten the placenta / afterbirth of some cow before she had a chance to gobble it up. His system was unable to assimilate the mass, so he simply puked it up. Nice of him to wait until he got home to get rid of it. It was the most disgusting sight I had ever seen. I can only begin to imagine how much better Charlie must have felt, having expelled such a massive quantity of waste. He looked at the artwork he had left on the flecked beige tile, and then he looked up at me. His head tilted slightly to one side, and he wondered about all of it I suppose. Charlie went on to have many more adventures in his life – some good, some not so good. He lived to be about 10 years old and I am really amazed that he made it that far.
Unfortunately though, on one of his many roaming adventures, he went swimming in a contaminated body of water and he developed a fungal pneumonia that could not be treated. I had to end up having him put down. I had only known him for ten short years but in that time, he caused me to call on senses and emotions I had not known or felt to that point, nor since. It was extremely tough to pick him up one last time and carry him across the linoleum floor in the Animal Hospital and set him down on the stainless-steel table. I put my hand on Charlie’s head as the doctor put the pentobarbital into the catheter and opened the butterfly clip on the tubing to release the medication into his system. Within a minute, that once-magnificent and full-of-life heart had stopped and Charlie was no more. As I walked out of the Veterinary Clinic, I cried and I swore that I would never take on another pet in my life.
Every once in awhile, I think about the only three dogs I have ever come to know in my life. I think about how much joy they brought to me and other members of my family. I think about them when they were pups and I recall their characters as they grew older and how much I could depend on them in my own day-to-day life. And, I think about how each of their lives sort of ended the same way. It was always so painful to be left behind to feel sad about losing them. But, I don’t regret having any of them. I wouldn’t change anything. I am glad I knew them and got a chance to live my life with them. It reminds me of a song by Garth Brooks - “The Dance”. And, I think how, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”