“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”
—Mark Twain

Get a Dog

by Mark Blackwell

There is a saying in the national government that goes “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” I have no doubt that this is true. It is also true if you want a reliable sheep herder, a good personal trainer, an alarm clock, substitute for a child or grandchild, entertainment, bodyguard, drinking buddy, etc. The dog is the Swiss army knife of pets. They come ready-made with an interesting variety of skills and proclivities and can be further trained to suit the desires of any patient owner.

As you may have guessed, I have lately become the master of a very fine representative of the canine persuasion. He is not my first dog, just the latest. I have had the misfortune to outlive quite a few furry pals in this life and I have often thought that either a dog’s life should be extended by a good measure or human beings should have their spans abbreviated. Maybe both propositions should be instituted in the interests of fairness. Nevertheless, I have a new dog and life out here on the ridge has changed.

I have gone for considerable stretches without the benefit of canine companionship but it’s like having a bland diet forced on you. I reckon I could survive on it but I wouldn’t look forward to mealtimes with much anticipation. I’m the kind of person that needs the spice of a dog in my life. They are spontaneous, optimistic and exuberant beings who want nothing more than to share those tendencies with whoever is around. There is no such thing as routine to a dog.

No matter how many times a dog walks the same old trail he invests every jaunt with the enthusiasm of a new adventure. Every day brings new smells and sights for a dog. As soon as he hits the trail he’s thinkin’, “Hey, a deer came through here last night. Wait a minute, that bottle wasn’t here yesterday.” For me, hangin’ out with a dog is a visit to a territory I left fifty years ago—the mind of a nine year old boy.

When I was a kid we lived out in the country on a small farmstead of a few acres. And it didn’t take me very long to pretty much explore and catalog every foot of ground in the square mile or so that I was allowed to roam. It was typical rural Indiana—fields, wood-lots and a creek. But every morning I would hit our screen door at a dead run, leap off the three-step-stoop and be out past the chicken yard before the spring on that backdoor stretched to its limit and delivered the satisfying BANG that officially started my day. I could never predict what might happen or what I might find but it was bound to be interesting.

There were days in the spring after we had tilled the garden that I would find arrowheads. Other days the raspberries would be ripe. Some days would be good for snake hunting or tree house building. Collections needed to be made—hawk feathers, rocks, fossils, artifacts that washed up from the creek. No matter what the time of year, a new and different world presented itself for exploration and adventure every day. But life tends to get a little more monotonous in adulthood. We dig mental ruts and inhabit them.

Having a dog goes a long way towards banishing the mundane. Dogs come equipped with the same mind set as prepubescent boys. They like to run whenever they feel like it. They like to examine the unusual and the smelly. They accept getting dirty as a small price to pay for an excellent adventure. Dogs don’t especially care for baths or sitting still. They don’t discuss their ailments. If they have an itch they scratch it without considering whether the situation is appropriate or not. Most dogs lean towards the practical and away from artificial manners.

I, like most people, have a tendency to try and get along with other folks. However, when I stop to think about what I’m giving up to get along, I realize that sociability is costing me a good deal of comfort and common sense. This, I believe, is the root of neurosis. If I find myself at some august gathering, having to sit and listen to somebody who has connived his way to public respectability, speechifying about a topic that that has no bearing on life as I know it, do I make myself comfortable and just take a snooze like your average sensible mutt? Noooo, I sit there and take it so I will be thought of as a good citizen by my neighbors. A dog doesn’t give a fig about appearing to be a good citizen or what his neighbors think—he just does what comes natural.

But this is not to say that dogs don’t have principles, they do; they’re just different. One of them is—if I find it it’s mine. Another goes—if it smells bad, roll in it, if it smells good, taste it, if it tastes good, eat it. These are simple and common sense rules for living. Dogs don’t deal much with clocks (with the possible exception of the “watch” dog). They know when it’s time to eat because they’re hungry and likewise when it is time to sleep. In fact, dogs don’t need bedrooms or motels or even beds—when they’re tired they just hit the ground and start snoring. Dogs make sense.

I could write another thousand words about this topic. There is no end to the admirable qualities of canines but ol’ Jasper has just informed me that we should head on out to the woods to see what the squirrels are up to.