Archie and the Wickets

My friend David Martin is a heck of a storyteller. He’s a heck of a writer too, but it was in the oral tradition that I first became acquainted with some of his more bizarre and hilarious anecdotes. One of these days he might just put them all together in a memoir tentatively titled Larry, Your Chicken Is Dead: Growing Up Normal in the Sixties. You should read it.

Anyway, of the many stories I remember Dave telling—the unfortunate incident of Nard’s chest, the horrifying tale of the rat and the python, the sad fate of the aforementioned chicken—the one that resonated with me most is that of Archie and the croquet set. Archie was a little dog owned by the Martins when David was a boy. I don’t remember what breed Archie was, but it was something short enough to be easily tripped by croquet wickets. These wickets, disguised by longish grass, lurked treacherously in the Martin yard, and when Archie started running around in energetic small-dog fashion, sooner or later he’d catch his paw on one. He’d fall, bewildered, then pick himself up and look behind him to see what had brought him down. But by now the wicket was lying flat, invisible even to a dog who was really looking. So Archie would get up and start running again, and again a hidden wicket would lay him low. Again he would look behind him; again he’d see nothing.

Animals can do only so much to make sense of the baffling contrivances of the human world. Archie did his best, but the cause of his tripping in the yard remained a dark mystery to him forever. He couldn’t see what was knocking him down, but he knew it was out there, waiting, mocking, and eventually he came up with a coping strategy. As he ran, he would randomly leap every few steps or so, hoping to clear whatever it was that kept tripping him up.

He kept up this behavior long after the croquet set was put away.

Pictured: almost certainly not Archie.

Pictured: almost certainly not Archie.

I listened to Dave tell this story, and I thought, I am exactly like that dog. Over two decades later, I am still thinking it. I can see the thing perfectly from Archie’s point of view. There he was, minding his small-dog business, running about the yard, and every so often some mysterious force of nature would catch his paw and lay him low. This M.F.O.N. was not confined to any one spot in the yard. It could not be seen, felt, or detected in any way; it was completely unpredictable. He might run a good bit without incident, but sooner or later the M.F.O.N. would get him. This was just the way life was.

Pictured: also not Archie.

Pictured: also not Archie.

From earliest childhood I have felt out of my depth. I grew up with a brother and a sister eleven and eight years older than myself. They were entrusted with things—mystifying, awe-inspiring things like operating the record player, heating things on the stove, and walking to the TG&Y without being accompanied by an adult. They were even allowed to take me to the TG&Y. My brother owned a truck and he was allowed to drive it. For all practical purposes I considered them grown up, except for the part where they still had to obey Mom and Dad. They did all this impressive stuff with such casual aplomb, like it was no big deal. They were so very competent, in fact, that it was a lot easier for my parents to have them keep on doing things than to teach me to do them. At the time I suspected this was because I was less capable than other children my age. (Yes, I actually spent time and energy suspecting this. Even as a child I was a habitual overthinker and worrier. Throw faulty assumptions and inadequate information into a mix like that and you get some wild conclusions. I remember hiding and crying in my room one December 31 because I thought this “New Year’s Eve” thing everyone kept talking about signified the end of the world. Later I thought the same thing about the Fourth of July, though for different reasons. The sky was on fire, for crying out loud. How could these people take this so calmly?)

My suspicions about my intrinsic inadequacy were reinforced when I entered first grade. I felt small and young compared to other students. (With a late August birthday, I actually was a little young, and thank you Malcolm Gladwell for confirming that this does in fact make a difference.) The others knew things I didn’t know, like their zip code. They plainly considered me ignorant, and I agreed with them. They had amazing capabilities—not so godlike as my brother’s and sister’s, but impressive. They were able to sit in desk seats for long periods of time and do tedious work like copying words from the blackboard. They could throw and catch a ball. They could jump rope.

In retrospect I think a big part of my problem was an overactive imagination coupled with extreme absentmindedness. I lived inside my own head so much that at any given moment I had little to no idea what was going on in the physical world around me. Learning practical skills was an arduous process for me, and whenever an object broke or malfunctioned or behaved in a way that was at all unexpected, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it unless I had been previously instructed (and maybe not even then). A more enterprising child might have taken initiative and figured it out, but I was far from enterprising. I figured anything I did would only mess things up worse than ever. Better to wait for an older, taller, more competent person to do it for me.

Lack of power is foundational to anxiety, and lack of understanding is closely related to lack of power. Anxiety is as much an issue for animals as it is for people, and when you are managing livestock, avoidance of stress is as big a deal as food and water. In Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin says, “In a way, animals are much poorer at handling stress than are people because they can’t think through the problem.” Chickens in particular have a low threshold for stress. Overcrowding, undercrowding, loud noises, sudden movements, and any excessive human intrusion can have significant effects on weight gain and even mortality.

This isn't Archie either.

This isn’t Archie either.

Even big tough predators feel the effects of stress and have to be closely monitored for it in captivity. I once watched some footage of Steve Irwin at his zoo doing something or other for a crocodile, maybe giving it food or doing some sort of maintenance on its enclosure. The croc didn’t like having a human in its home, but Steve did whatever he’d come to do, and when he was finished, rather than just leaving the enclosure, he let the croc chase him out. This gave the animal a feeling of control over its environment. In its mind, it was having success at protecting its territory and driving away intruders. Without this sense of security, the crocodile would feel anxious and helpless. It did look awfully smug as Steve scrambled out of the enclosure, but then crocodiles usually do look smug.

I am more proactive than a chicken, and less emotionally fragile than a crocodile, but that only means I have different limits to my comprehension and ability to control my environment. When we can’t see what’s tripping us, we get anxious, and we randomly jump, hoping against reason to time things just right and avoid getting knocked down. Before long, we’re jumping pretty much all the time. Whoa! Didn’t see that coming, and I sure wouldn’t want to be taken by surprise that way again. I will safeguard myself against a recurrence by feeling extremely anxious! Gah! Now something else is tripping me! What kind of world is this?! Jump! Jump! Jump!

(This is as good a time as any to say that I don’t mean to imply that Archie the dog lived a troubled existence marred by constant crippling anxiety. I never knew him, but I’m sure any dog owned by David Martin must have been well cared for and emotionally secure. Yes, he tripped a lot, but he figured out a system, and although it wasn’t a very good system, the wickets did eventually come down, and like Steve’s crocodile, Archie probably congratulated himself on his success. He didn’t understand that correlation does not equal causation, and that’s okay. A little logic goes a long way for a dog.)

Not even close.

Not even close.

Eventually I grew up and decided it was high time I learned to do stuff for myself rather than always waiting for someone else. I’m fairly knowledgeable and competent now, but I remember what it was like not to be, and I’m always absurdly pleased with myself whenever I accomplish some practical task. Yep, that breaker tripped and I got the switch flipped back. I totally know where the breaker box is and everything. The internet age is a dream come true for me. All that knowledge there for the taking! All those articles and original texts and step-by-step numbered lists! Wikipedia and eHow are my friends. People, too, are somewhat less baffling to me since I learned to discern their patterns of behavior, motives, and innate temperaments. I have a better understanding now of why people do the things they do and of what to expect from them.

But in spite of my best efforts, I am not omniscient and never will be. I still get taken by unpleasant surprise. People are still mysterious far beyond my ability to quantify them. Weird stuff still happens in the world, stuff that even the brightest and ablest never saw coming.

The thing about being blindsided is, you never do see it coming. That’s what being blindsided means. Anxiety doesn’t really safeguard us against anything; it just robs us of the precious emotional energy we’ll need when—not if—some random crisis does hit us out of the blue. We can never be vigilant enough to effectively guard against any and all eventualities. We would do better to remain in the present, grounded in the actual rather than the imaginary, focused on what is rather than what may be.

I haven’t arrived by any means, but I do think I’m a little better than I once was at rolling with the punches. At the very least I’ve come to see that my anxiety is exactly as useful as randomly jumping to avoid being tripped. The realization in and of itself isn’t much, but it’s something.

The truth is, there are wickets hiding in the grass, and there always will be. Some days I’m just going to get knocked down. But I’ll get up again, just like Archie did.

joyful dog

Through the Doorway: More Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

ronan intro

This is Ronan. He is my dog, my Sheltie, my 2013 Mother’s Day present. Bridget, my first Sheltie and the first dog who was ever really mine, had died some months back, and the family thought that I should have another.

Like most of our dogs and cats, Ronan was a rescue. My daughters visited him at the shelter and got in the kennel with him. He seemed like a good, friendly, well socialized dog. They brought him home.

He limped badly on his left front leg, putting no weight on it at all. But we were hopeful. He was a young dog; with good care he should recover just fine.

But no. On examination, the leg injury was found to be an old one. The cartilage in the elbow joint was completely worn away; the vet was fascinated by how very absent it was. There was no way to make the leg right. The vet could either fuse the joint together, giving Ronan a stiff leg which he still wouldn’t be able to walk on and which would require lifelong pain meds, or amputate.

This was such an easy choice that I was surprised to be given two options. The fused limb would have no greater function than as a torso decoration. It would be worse than useless; it would be in the way, impeding mobility and causing pain.

The leg came off, and Ronan made a quick recovery. He’d been tripoding around for so long already that the adjustment to three legs didn’t seem to trouble him at all.

ronan recovery

I like Shetland sheepdogs. They’re small, intelligent, and Scottish, and they have the herding-dog mindset that’s so attractive to me. It’s natural that I would compare Ronan to Bridget, though he’s his own dog and has his own place. It didn’t take long to realize that Ronan is a very different dog indeed.

They were different in appearance. Both were initially overweight, but Ronan is just a bigger dog altogether. Bridget eventually slimmed down to twenty pounds, about average for a Sheltie. Ronan started out at a whopping thirty-eight. He’s down to twenty-six now–slender for his dimensions, but still high by Sheltie standards, and that’s with just three legs.

Like Bridget, Ronan has a sable coat, but his facial markings give his face a completely different character. Bridget had a thin white stripe down her nose; her face looked closed and shrewd. Ronan’s stripe is broad, creating a wide-eyed, perpetually surprised expression.

But the most significant difference is in personality. Bridget came to us with many anxieties; Ronan not so much. He is outgoing, for a Sheltie, and largely free from hang-ups.

Largely, but not entirely.

Anytime you have a rescue dog, there will be some mystery about its past. You make inferences based on behavior, but you don’t really know. And there is always something. Even Ready, our Australian shepherd/Border collie mix, who had the most well-balanced personality I’ve ever seen in a dog, was afraid of brooms—not of being hit by a broom, but of the sound the bristles made when drawn across the floor. It just seemed to give him the willies; when I’d start sweeping, he’d skitter off. Had he been spooked by a broom as a pup? Who knows? It was a cute quirk but not that big a deal. Bridget, on the other hand, had a lot of behaviors that made us suspect she’d come from a household with an abuser.

Ronan’s hang-up was one I’d never dealt with before. He wouldn’t come when called.

I’m not talking about when he was excited about a tennis ball or distracted by food or expecting a bath or something. I mean that under ordinary, unremarkable circumstances, this dog would not come. He wouldn’t just ignore the command; he would get up and go the other way, like Jonah fleeing the presence of the LORD and going to Tarshish instead of Nineveh. There was no haste in his movement, just a steady, grave plodding in the opposite direction.

Never before had I known an otherwise well socialized dog to refuse to come. “Come” is usually the easiest command to teach, assuming the dog likes you at all. It wants to come; it wants to be with you.

But Ronan wouldn’t come, and I don’t know why. If he’d feared abuse, I’d expect him to fear people in general. But he seemed comfortable with us. He did prefer the company of women to that of men, as Bridget did, and I’ve heard this is typical of the breed. But his run-away-when-called routine was for women and men alike. He didn’t mind when I approached him; he seemed to welcome my presence and to enjoy being petted. But when I called him to me, he actively sought to get away.

Does he associate something unpleasant with being called? Maybe something to do with his injury? Maybe people used to call him over and then feel the injured joint in a way that hurt him. But it would have to happen an awful lot for him to build up this level of aversion.

Within the house, the behavior wasn’t much of an issue. Ronan would come easily enough to eat (assuming there wasn’t a male family member between him and his food dish). Going from inside to outside wasn’t a problem either. The only real trouble was getting him to pass through an exterior door from outside the house to inside the house.

It isn’t that he dislikes the house. He likes it fine. But something about passing through that doorway in that direction spooks him.

This was a real pain in the early days, especially for the guys. The girls and I had enough trouble getting him inside; when Greg or Daniel tried, it was downright comical. It’s not that he’s a fast animal. With his three-legged gait, he’s easy to catch. But then what? The guys couldn’t exactly tackle him. He’s unsteady, and they didn’t want to knock him down; and he might snap at them. One day Daniel chased him around the house in several sluggish and time-consuming laps before Ronan wiped out on a corner and came down hard on his stump, which hadn’t completely healed. At that point Daniel gave up, for good.

Catching Ronan became a woman’s job. The process evolved over time. At first we’d catch him, pick him up, and carry him up the porch steps and into the house. As heavy as he was in those days, this was a real chore. Then someone had the bright idea of using the leash. This was a big improvement. Once leashed he would succumb to the inevitable and come along with surprising docility. Sometimes the leash wasn’t handy and we were in a hurry, so we’d grab him by the back of the ruff and pull. Then Emilie realized you didn’t always have to pull. Often you could take him gently by the ruff and just guide him inside.

Bridget was extremely reserved, almost a one-person dog, but Ronan is sociable. He never shied away from the other dogs, but he was initially wary of Buddy, the Great Dane mix. Buddy was very much a puppy when Ronan met him, though they were about the same size; he was forward and clumsy in his movements, and his friendly overtures made Ronan nervous—understandable, since Ronan was none too steady on his remaining feet. If Buddy got too close or too nosy, Ronan would snarl, and Buddy would jump back, startled. It was fun to see a Shetland sheepdog make a Great Dane back down.

Buddy is more graceful now, and he and Ronan get along fine. Ronan likes being with the other dogs and does his best to join them in play. He can’t keep up in a running and chasing game, but if Buddy and Feather are running back and forth together from point A to point J, Ronan stays in the middle of their course and runs with them from points D through F as they pass by.

He likes wrestling games too, though the other dogs don’t actually wrestle him. He hovers nearby as they wrestle each other; he moves around them in an arc and occasionally darts in, close but not touching.

It can be sad to be on the periphery. Being close is nice, but it’s not the same as being in the thick of things. Most of the time Ronan is just a glorified spectator. But recently Greg saw Buddy actually playing with Ronan one-on-one. Buddy now weighs sixty pounds, most of which is muzzle and leg; he not only outweighs Ronan by over a hundred percent but also towers over him.

Buddy seemed to know he had to be careful with Ronan. He lowered himself to Ronan’s height and waggled. They “wrestled,” and when Ronan came at him Buddy rolled onto his back as if Ronan were really owning him.

Ronan loved this game. He is free from the self-examination that would cause a human being to realize that a pretend wrestling game with an opponent who is only going through the motions and letting you throw him is not the same as the real thing. Knowing that we are coming up short in some way and that allowances are being made for us can chafe at our pride, but maybe we are too short-sighted. The truth is, none of us is truly whole, and in the community of grace we are all making allowances for each other most of the time.

ronan derp

Any reduction from the normal and healthy is a loss and should be recognized as such. However resilient an individual animal may be in recovering from the loss of a limb, the fact remains that dogs were meant to have four legs. Over his lifetime Ronan will have a lot of unusual wear and strain on his frame due to compensating for his missing limb. Arthritis is likely in the future, and he falls down a lot in the present. He will never again run full-tilt in a double suspension gallop with all limbs fully extended.

pictured: not Ronan

pictured: not Ronan

 It was Emilie who took Ronan to the vet back in the spring to have his leg examined. I remember when she texted me the news that the damage wasn’t reparable. She was pretty down about it; we’d only just adopted him, and now he had to have an amputation. She apologized for gifting me with a dog who had issues. I replied that everyone has issues sooner or later and this one wasn’t that bad. A dog, like a person, is a whole package, an assortment of temperament and history, physiology and character, adding up to something wonderful and unique. Ronan is a gift, and I’m glad to have him. He is a very different dog from Bridget, but like her he has taught me much about myself and about God.

Ronan forgot how to dog bed.

Ronan forgot how to dog bed.

Ronan still has issues with coming when called. As long as he isn’t being called inside, he comes just fine, but when an exterior door is involved, things are a little dicey. It seems to help when no other animals are crowding him. It also helps if I back away from the door, though with all the swarming cats and whatnot this is not usually possible. Once in a great while, when everything is just right and he has plenty of space to negotiate the threshold and isn’t overthinking, he passes through the doorway entirely on his own. Most of the time, though, he still needs help. But he no longer runs away. Sometimes he just laps a few tight circles, allowing himself to work off a little nervous energy without putting actual distance between us, and making it easy for me to catch him.

And sometimes he doesn’t even do that. Sometimes he just stands and looks at me, as if he’s thinking, I know you want me to come through that door, and I’d like to do it, but I don’t quite have the courage to do it on my own. So I’ll wait here, and you can come get me and guide me through.

It’s not brute force that makes this work. I’m not muscling Ronan through the door; I’m just guiding him, and he isn’t resisting. The thing that makes the difference is my presence. Just having me there gives him the courage he needs.

My dog is far from perfect in obedience, but his heart is inclined in the right direction. I’m not so perfect in obedience myself. Sometimes I don’t want to come when called; sometimes I’m unsteady on my feet and afraid I’ll be knocked down. Like Ronan, I don’t have to come through the doorway on my own.

Biting Airplanes Out of the Sky: Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

I was driving home with my kids one evening when something fluffy and sable-colored caught my eye from a bar ditch. A long, dignified dog face turned a little to follow our Suburban as we passed. Was it a collie? Something about its posture didn’t seem right. I turned the Suburban around.

Not a collie, but a Shetland sheepdog. She wasn’t visibly injured or starved-looking; in fact, she was on the tubby side. Long bald patches ran down either side of her spine. Her skin was coming off in flakes.

She looked at me as I approached, but without much interest. She didn’t get up, either to meet me or to run away, and she didn’t perk her ears or pant as a dog should. On the whole, the best word I could think of for her condition was “depressed.”

She had no collar, and my friend who lived in the neighborhood told me she’d been roaming loose for days. Nobody knew whose dog she was.

We took her home. It was too late to visit the vet that day. The dog remained listless, resting her head in Anna’s lap and accepting the children’s petting without pleasure or fear. Greg guessed that she had internal injuries and doubted she’d survive the night.

But in the morning she was still with us, a little pile of sable-and-white fluff bedded down on the grass just outside the French doors in the back hard. After waking up she gave a few barks, jerking her pointed nose skyward, and then looked at me through the glass to see how I was taking it.

Hoping she didn’t have some horrific contagious skin disease, I bathed her, wrapped her in towels, and set her in a corner of the living room. She went straight to sleep and remained that way for the better part of two days, seldom leaving her corner, using the towels as a temporary bed. Ready, our Border collie/Australian shepherd mix, paid no attention to her. She was more like a piece of furniture than a second dog.

But after a couple of days she started to wake up and take notice. At first I didn’t actually see her walking around; I’d just go into another room and suddenly there she’d be, looking at me with a strangely expectant face.

The vet said she wasn’t injured. Her lethargy, hair loss, and excess weight turned out to be caused by an underactive thyroid. The flaky skin puzzled us for a while, but eventually we decided it was probably just sunburn due to lack of fur. She’d delivered pups recently and still had milk. Her paw pads were rubbed raw. The vet said, “That’s what comes of being tender-footed and then getting dumped.”

We weren’t surprised when no one claimed the dog. We guessed that she’d been used in a small-time breeding operation and then abandoned because of her thyroid condition.

There was some talk of placing her with a nice Sheltie rescue organization. We already had one dog and two cats, and adding another dog seemed like a big deal. (Yes, we now have a combined canine/feline population total that numbers well into double digits. This was another time.) Greg, sensing my feelings in the matter, said, “You know, we could keep this dog if you want. She’s small. She won’t eat much.”

I named her Bridget, a good Scottish name. With the help of some prescription pills from the vet, she slimmed down and her coat grew thick and lush. There was something deeply compelling in her small pointed face; she was so intelligent, so watchful, so alert, so very fixated on me and me alone. Ready was the first dog I’d ever loved; Bridget was the first dog to be mine.

In many of Bridget's photos, she's either barking or about to be.

In many of Bridget’s photos, she’s either barking or about to be.

It appears to me that God has allowed some special things to happen in the relationship between people and dogs. C.S. Lewis thought so, too. He had this to say about animals in The Problem of Pain.

Atheists naturally regard the co-existence of man and the animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts; and the taming of an animal by a man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another. The ‘real’ or ‘natural’ animal to them is the wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing. But a Christian must not think so. Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal—the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so.

Some of this animal selfhood comes from selective breeding. Certainly selective breeding has produced some terrible things; dominion wouldn’t be dominion if it couldn’t be abused. But it’s produced wonderful things too, particularly with dogs. There’s amazing variety to be found in Canis lupus familiaris. Hunting dogs are bred for a certain kind of physiology and intelligence, security dogs for another, shepherds for yet another; and even within those groups there’s great physical and behavioral variation. Our Great Dane/Lab and our Border collie/Spaniel are comically distinct in even so simple an action as walking across a pasture.

The kind of intelligence particular to herding dogs, like Shelties, is a complex one. These dogs have to be able to direct the animals they’re herding, protect them from predators, and communicate with the shepherd.

Shelties probably didn’t have a lot of predators to contend with on the Shetland Islands where the breed was developed, but I’ve read speculation that the modern Sheltie’s tendency to bark at aircraft, and launch its body upward as if to snatch the aircraft from the sky, is a holdover from when the dogs might have had to protect flocks from predatory birds. All the Shelties I’ve known take themselves seriously enough for me to think this might just be correct.

Here we see Bridget barking.

Here we see Bridget barking.

Bridget took a very serious view of life indeed. There was something both comical and poignant about the contrast between, on the one hand, her small size, fluffy coat, and dainty features, and on the other, her deadly seriousness and determination. Affronts to her dignity offended her. She was intelligent and vigilant, reserved with strangers but deeply loyal to me. She was something of a one-person dog, and though from my point of view she seemed friendly enough to the rest of the family, they claimed this was only when I was actually around. In my absence she was moody and peevish. Sometimes when I was away the kids would hang a blanket across the corner to which she’d withdraw herself, thinking that she’d feel better if she didn’t have to look at anyone. She stayed put behind the blanket until I returned, so maybe they were right.

We often wondered what Bridget’s life had been like before she came to us. Her behavior gave us some clues, but we could only guess at their meaning.

Anything resembling violence—rough play, raised voices—made her nervous. One day Greg, who was studying martial arts, was practicing a kata in the bedroom, and he began by clapping his hands together loudly. Bridget was relaxing in the living room; she couldn’t even see Greg, but at the sound of the hand-clap, she snapped upright, ran into the bedroom through the open door, and gave him a severe barking. She didn’t react this way to loud noises in general. Did the sound of flesh striking flesh have some significance to her?

Counting aloud bothered her too. I wondered if she had lived in a household where the parents counted menacingly at the children, as in, “I’m going to give you to the count of three, and then…”

She was mistrustful of men and adolescent boys but protective of children and women. When Daniel and two of his friends fought each other with wooden swords in the back yard she watched without interest, but when one boy’s little brother went outside she suddenly ran over to the big boys and barked and barked. Their violent behavior wasn’t an issue when the worst they might do is pick off each other, but once a small child entered the area, it was a danger that must be stopped.

Well, not exactly stopped. There is a big difference between a watch dog and a guard dog. A Sheltie is a good watch dog because it is vigilant and alert and will bark the heck out of anything it finds odd, but that’s about it. If the aggressor or intruder isn’t deterred by noise alone, he won’t be physically restrained by twenty pounds of fluffy dog. Bridget knew her limits. That she dared as much as she did, given her small size and overall anxiety about the world, demonstrated real valor, I think.

One day Greg was playing with Emilie, who was about eight at the time, tickling her and lifting her into the air. Emilie was squealing with laughter. Bridget didn’t like it; she barked sternly at Greg from a few feet off. Greg set Emilie on the sofa and jokingly (but nothing is a joke to a Sheltie) walked over to Bridget with a sort of bowed-up posture until he was towering directly over her. And Bridget stopped barking, shut her eyes, and crouched down in a tucked posture. She was in no danger, but she didn’t know that. She had done what she could to protect the child, and now she was prepared to take a beating for it.

Greg dropped the menacing posture at once, lowered himself in the most unthreatening way he could manage, and gave Bridget a friendly rub.

Like all of us, Bridget had a unique identity shaped by the genetic package she was born with and her formative experiences. I loved her dearly in all the goodness and frailty of her doganity. I loved her fierce loyalty, her protective impulses, her unnecessary anxiety; I loved the way she followed me around the house, gazed at me when I petted her, got excited when she saw me putting on the shoes that meant we were about to go for a walk.

Bridget and Ready, in from the rain. Not barking.

Bridget and Ready, in from the rain. Not barking.

A herding dog ought to be sensitive and responsive to the shepherd’s will. In Bridget’s world, I stood in the place of a shepherd. She wasn’t always as responsive as I would have liked; she barked more than necessary, often after I’d told her to stop, as if she thought I didn’t understand the threat. She was more vigilant than she needed to be; she spent a lot of time and energy taking defensive measures against forces she didn’t comprehend and couldn’t control anyway. She made me think: does my anxiety look this way to God? How many of my own fears are completely baseless, being concerned with things that will absolutely never come to pass?

Each member of our family has at one time or another had a dog that was that person’s particular dog, and in each case I’ve been amazed by how close a match it was, especially considering that none of us was searching for a particular breed or mix. These dogs just came to us—from the hand of God, I think, ready to love us and teach us and be exactly the companions we needed.

From left to right: my dog, Greg's dog, Daniel's dog.

From left to right: my dog, Greg’s dog, Daniel’s dog.

Bridget was my dog—neurotic, focused, watchful, loyal. She was far from perfect, but she did what she could, and she was wonderfully lovable just as she was. If I love my own shepherd with anything like Bridget’s devotion, I will do well indeed.

bridget sweet

Of Errant Dogs and the Grace of God

These are two of our dogs, Avalon and Erin. They are sisters, half Lab and half Australian shepherd. They are not quite two years old. Greg brought them home from the shelter, where they were sharing one kennel after being surrendered by a previous owner.

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Sister dogs.

It’s commonly agreed in our household that Erin, though very pretty and sweet, is not the cleverest of dogs. Avalon is a bit brighter, or seems so by the tilt of her eyes and the cock of her ears. Tara, the goofy, puling, lolloping Lab-Spaniel mix, now seems a sedate, responsible, grown-up dog in our canine hierarchy.

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A dumb dog.

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A smarter dog.

A downright brilliant dog.

A downright brilliant dog.

Sometimes Erin and Avalon do dumb things, like submerging their front legs and heads in their water pail when getting a drink. (The bottom of the water pail has a perpetual layer of humus from their paws and coats.) Sometimes they chew things, like antique books or Christmas ornaments or scrap lumber or their own dog beds. Often Avalon will suddenly start barking at a visitor who’s been in the house for hours, and on more than one occasion Erin has been witnessed attempting to eat a rock.

And sometimes they get out of the yard when we don’t want them to. This was a big issue when we first brought them home over a year ago; they found escape routes that had been ignored by our older, less adventuresome dogs, and as soon as we’d block one—with barbed wire, bits of old roofing, scraps of hog wire, whatever we could scrounge—they’d find another. Eventually all the gaps were mended, and we enjoyed a long period of yard-boundary sanctity.

But not long ago, they started getting out again. At first we didn’t know how or where. Then one day I happened to be looking out my bedroom window just as Erin was slithering her way under the side gate through a gap that appeared no wider than a few inches. Undaunted by the narrowness of the space or the strand of barbed wire looped around the bottom of the gate, she contorted her slender body into unbelievable narrowness, yipping occasionally when the barbed wire snagged her. Avalon stood and watched until her sister had wormed her way out, then followed suit.

In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost questions the necessity of fences in a place where property owners keep only trees, which are not likely to trespass, and challenges the oft-repeated adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But when animals are involved, there are sound reasons for these structures to exist—reasons like highways and railroad tracks and livestock. Dogs at large can do mischief and get hurt. In property as in life, boundaries generally exist for the well-being of people and animals.

One nice thing about these sister-dogs of ours is that when we call them home, they come instantly and gladly. I know the right way to call an errant dog: in a welcoming, encouraging, well-nigh joyous tone of voice. Anger and condemnation would be counterproductive; if you yell at him, he’ll just run away in confusion and fright.

So when I call Erin and Avalon back to the safety of the yard, I call them eagerly, lovingly. At the sound of my voice they turn, their mischievous plans forgotten, and run to me in an all-out, wide-eyed, ears-streaming-back, tongue-lolling lope. I continue to call encouragement, praising their obedience and cleverness. Alternatively, I might tell them how dumb they are in a nice tone of voice; it’s all the same to them. But mostly I say what they most want to hear—“Good dog.” No matter how annoyed I am, or how badly they have inconvenienced me, I call them with love and acceptance, never condemnation. And they come.

running dogs

And every time it happens, I think, The grace of God is exactly like this.

I need the reminder. My default idea of God, the one that comes unbidden to my mind before I have a chance to recollect myself, is of someone calculating and skeptical and visibly underwhelmed by any inclination of mine to return to the yard after I’ve strayed. Certainly not yelling, but far from welcoming—arms crossed, foot tapping, with a cynical twist to the mouth and an unspoken expectation that it’s only a matter of time before I make a hash of things again.

This is an absolutely unbiblical view of God, the Enemy’s lie. It is he, not God, who is called the Accuser, who whispers reminders of past failures and insinuates that our repentance won’t count until it has proven itself. He would steal the joy of salvation and substitute dry, lifeless, prudent behavior modification plans for wacked-out grace. Mysteriously enough, it is precisely this wacked-out, unconditional grace that contains the power for true, lasting change in the human heart.

The Greek word metanoia (μετάνοια), translated in the New Testament as “repentance,” has the sense of a change of mind in both time and direction. The old is past and behind; the new is ahead, spatially and temporally. My errant dogs repent when they turn away from the wrong course and set their faces for home. There is no looking back. There is no cowering under the disapproving stare of the gatekeeper. There is no probationary period, no conditional acceptance, no recital of past wrongs. It’s truly a fresh start.

“Good dogs!” I tell them. And I mean it. They’re good dogs. They’re my dogs. And they’re home.

The Opossum in the Cabinet

We had an odd arrangement with our contractor, who was also our former pastor and good friend: we hired him to build the house, and he hired Greg as his framing crew. He knew we needed to do all we could to cut costs, and he graciously accommodated us. I worked on the house too, as much as I was able, mostly on painting and clean-up. The kids were then six, three, and two years of age. They spent long days with us at the house-in-progress, helping with the work and running around the three-acre property.

No doubt the new house would be a big improvement over the old. Since before Daniel’s first birthday, we’d lived in 1100 square feet of bad plumbing and particle-wood sub-floors. We’d been grateful to get that place, and certainly it had its good points. But we were reveling in the expectation of 1600 square feet of brand spanking new living space that could be counted on not to fall apart around us anytime in the near future.

We’d gotten home late that night from working on the house; we’d thrown something together for dinner, fed the kids, and put them to bed. Greg and I were sitting at the kitchen table, talking, when I heard a scratching sound coming from inside the cabinet under the sink.

This was not an unheard-of thing. Our baby-proof latches had long since worn out, and our cat Pud had a knack for opening certain cabinet doors with his paw. Probably he just liked the privacy.

Untroubled, without shifting in my seat or pausing in what I was saying, I opened the door.

Perched on top of a box of dishwashing detergent was an animal. Smaller than our grown cats, whitish, with round black eyes, a long snout, and a bald, pink, prehensile tail.

I shut the door. Then I turned to my husband.

“Greg,” I said, “there—there’s a—there’s an opossum—”

He was already nodding, his eyes intently fixed on my face, willing me to stay calm. “I know. I saw it too. It must have come in through that hole in the cabinet floor. We’ll just leave it shut in the cabinet for the night, and tomorrow after it goes away I’ll seal up the hole.”

The plan wasn’t ideal, but under the circumstances it was the best we could do. Neither of us wanted to grapple with the animal, and if we were to flush it out of the cabinet and try to hustle it through the front door, there was no guarantee that it would go where we wanted it to without a fight. I’d heard of opossums doing a lot of damage in houses to which they’d somehow gained entrance.

We blocked the door with a chair and a box, trapping the critter and preventing Pud from strolling in for a little down time and making the awful discovery. Then we went to bed.

Next morning, we opened the cabinet. No opossum! It must have slunk out in the night, just as Greg had predicted. Greg sealed the hole with some of that expanding foam stuff that comes in a can. When he was done, there was no opening left through which any opossum could possibly pass.

He went to work, and the kids and I stayed home. Sometime that afternoon, I opened the undersink cabinet to throw something away.

The opossum stared up at me from inside the trash can.

Let me say here that I do not fear opossums on principle, or bees or wasps or spiders or snakes. Faced with wildlife that isn’t actively attacking me in a life-threatening manner, I can keep my head as well as anyone. But I do hate to be startled. I don’t fear Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke either, but if I found him inside my trash can, I would probably scream.

It all depends on context.

And I screamed now. To my credit, I also had the presence of mind to quickly throw away my handful of trash and slam the cabinet door shut.

The kids knew that Mom did not make a habit of randomly screaming. They wanted to know what was wrong. Rattled, but determined to recover my calm, I said, “Oh, nothing, almost nothing at all. There’s just an opossum in the trash can.”

(This is as good a place as any to address the largely obsolete spelling “opossum.” Throughout most of the incident of the marsupial in our cabinet, I referred to the animal by this, its rightful name. “Why do you call it that?” Greg asked. “Nobody says opossum anymore, just possum.” The thing seemed to matter deeply to him, so I started saying the word his way. I even pronounced it without the apostrophe traditionally used to indicate missing letters.)

I called Greg at work. We agreed that the possum had most definitely not been hiding out in the trash can while he was sealing the hole in the floor. Nor had it been skulking in a corner of the cabinet behind my mopping bucket. Where, then, had it disappeared to, and reappeared from?

We reasoned that the possum had slipped into the space behind the dishwasher and hung out there while Greg was working on the cabinet floor. Perhaps it was napping, or cowering in abject terror. One way or another, it was back.

Then the full import of the situation dawned on us. Greg had, in fact, sealed the possum inside the house, contrary to his intent.

And Greg was about to leave town for the weekend.

“You can keep him shut in the cabinet while I’m gone,” he said in a half-apologetic, half-coaxing tone. “When I get back I’ll set the live trap inside the cabinet and catch him. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get him out after I get back, but I just don’t have time to deal with this right now.”

There are times in my married life when my husband needs me to rise to the occasion, to be more than what I am, to laugh in the face of minor irritations and major adversity and so on. I’ve often failed, but not that day.

We blocked the cabinet door again, and Greg left for a visit to his dad.

Obviously I couldn’t have the beast perishing of hunger inside my kitchen cabinet, so a couple of times a day I tossed in some of the kids’ sandwich crusts. I figured it would get a subsistence level of water from the faulty plumbing under the sink.

It was kind of an unsettled time. It’s hard to really relax when you know that there is a hissing animal with needle-sharp teeth hiding in your kitchen. The whole concept probably has the makings of a horror movie. The underbed has been amply explored as a region of primal terror, but there is untapped potential in the undersink, home to dangerous chemicals, leaky pipes, garbage, nameless slime, and itinerant marsupials.

Greg came home again, set the live trap, baited it with a cheese sandwich, and put it in the cabinet. I had my doubts. Could the animal really be naïve enough to be lured by such blatant means into a metal contraption so obviously meant to confine him?

Yes, it could. In the morning Greg opened the cabinet, and there was the possum, snugly ensconced in the trap. This was my first opportunity to get a good look at the animal. It was a young possum and sort of cute.

Something like this.

Pud was sleeping nearby. Throughout the whole possum occupation he’d been an ineffectual watchcat, never even sniffing suspiciously at the cabinet. Greg held the cage close to him. The possum tensed; Pud slept on.

Finally Pud woke, looked at the strange animal, and fluffed up his fur. His pupils dilated and he began to yowl.

But the time for a rumble had passed. The delighted children accompanied their father and me down the street and across Mayhill Road to the lovely woods beyond. There we released our evicted tenant. It scuttled off into the herbage, never to be seen again, at least by us.

After church that day I got out a roll of paper towels and a bottle of cleaner and happily went to work, removing all signs and odors of the possum’s stay. I crawled inside the cabinet to reach the space behind the dishwasher. In a surprisingly short time, all impurities were purged away.

Within a few months we’d moved into our new home, which was never once invaded by a possum during the nine years we lived there, though it did have quite a few brown recluse spiders. But we have great memories of the old place. It was a good home to us, marsupial squatters notwithstanding.

Whether an animal, or even a person, qualifies as a pest, an invader, a guest, a pet, or a resident depends on the homeowner’s point of view. Scorpions are never welcome inside the house, and cattle belong outside the fenced yard and away from the compost bin. The status of the outside cats fluctuates depending on whether they are lounging on the porch, slipping inside to steal food off the counter, or controlling the local population of Rodents Of Unusual Size. Just this morning three of the dogs were demoted to varmint status when they chewed some of Emilie’s stuffed animals and ate her bag of horse treats.

But all four of the big dogs earned praise two nights ago when they alerted us to an alien presence in the yard. Greg went outside and found a possum curled up in a hideous playing-dead pose: eyes wide and staring, limbs stiff, lips pulled back from rows of jagged teeth in a horrible grimace. Greg picked it up by its tail and chucked it over the fence.

If only it were always that easy.

Cartesian Philosophy for Dogs

Recently Tara got the worse of an encounter with a skunk and had to be bathed with the handy skunk-gunk remedy I found online years ago. Held by the collar and hosed down outside, then bundled into the bathtub for the full treatment, she was a sad and sorry dog, with drooping tail and mournful eyes. But the remedy worked, neutralizing her noxious stench and making her fit for polite society again.

Not many days later, perhaps disoriented by her extreme cleanliness, Tara took a roll in some vile substance. The kids and I reason that without a distinctive odor belonging to herself, Tara began to question her identity and doubt her very existence. The malodorous roll affirmed her actuality. “I stink, therefore I am.”