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A story titled “Winterizing Your Dog” appeared recently in the New York Times. It was about protecting city pets from the elements with garments and such. There was also a reference to special areas in the city where dogs were let off their leashes and allowed to run free with other dogs.
It made me smile.
Like my father before me, I am a dog man. I like just about every dog I ever met— short dogs, tall dogs, city dogs, country dogs—I like dogs.
My favorite dogs are big dogs.
Dad loved dogs too, but he leaned toward little dogs. Maybe that’s why the very first dog my mother allowed into the house was a miniature Doberman Pinscher named Wiggles. (Like her father before her, my mother was not a dog person.) Tipping the scales at 7 pounds, Wiggles thought he was a big dog. So big, in fact, that he once challenged our 90-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever for a bowl of leftovers.
Yes. We fed our dogs table scraps.
Chip the Chesapeake was an outside dog. He knew no boundaries except his own. No one in their right mind would have allowed Chip into the house. So, when Wiggles ill advisedly growled and snapped at him over the food, Chip bit into the middle of Wiggle’s back, casually throwing him over his right shoulder a little like tossing yesterday’s trash into a dumpster.
Wiggles survived because Chip wasn’t trying to kill him. But he lost a patch of skin that Chip spit onto the sidewalk before finishing his leftovers. And, in an uncharacteristic (for him at least) display of care by my Depression-era penny-conscious farmer-father, Dad went to the vet for sulfa powder to coat the wound.
In youthful ignorance I demanded the dog see a doctor. An idea that was summarily dismissed. Taking the dog to the vet could have cost $5. “Aww, it’ll grow back,” Dad said. Dad was right. And for the rest of Wiggles’ small dog life, he wore a bald spot in the middle of his back about the same shape and size as a bite from a bitter apple.
Maybe Dad spent a dollar for medication because Mother paid $25 for Wiggles and he hated to accept the loss, or maybe it was because during leisure moments in front of the TV, Wiggles always parked himself on Dad’s lap.
That’s why given my background, I smile at stories like the one in New York Times. Dad would never have given a dog olive oil for dry skin or a glossy coat, let alone bought him an overcoat and boots. However, a good and loyal hunter like Chip might have gotten a raw egg on top of his morning can of Strongheart dog food, but only if he fetched all of Dad’s downed, orange-legged, green-head mallard drakes from an icy pond in late December.
No. Contrary to New York Times wisdom, Chip did not wear a wet suit for that.
Actually, during duck season and some other times, his full name was expletive deleted Chip. That’s because his master’s will was not always Chip’s command. When the chips were down, Chip called the shots.
After a few hours in the cold, Chip would swim across the pond to get what would be the last duck of the day, pick it up, and start toward the duck blind. At that point he stopped, and looking Dad in the eye, dropped the duck onto the ground. Then with his tail curved tightly up over his back, Chip raised one leg in an implied statement of independence, scratched the ground briskly with his hind feet, and trotted off at a jaunty pace toward home.
At that empowered moment, servant became master.
In spite of all that, Chip was always fed and always had a warm straw bed in an outside shed to sleep on. He may not have gotten his raw egg—or praise—that day, but Dad was a dog man who did not believe in abusing animals. Especially dogs.
Country people look at dogs a little differently than our city cousins. Around here it’s still not unusual to see the neighbor dogs sniffing in an open field, or an untethered dog in the back of a pickup truck—in winter or summer—without a hat.
Dogs are territorial. None I’ve ever seen would dream of leaving their truck for anything other than a master’s wishes—or maybe sex. Every dog I’ve seen in a pick up truck owned it. Dogs love to ride, and their country owners enjoy watching them experience the freedom of it without car payments or fuel bills.
We live vicariously through our dog’s unbridled spirits. Even country people have obligations, but a dog’s only obligation is to the simple life of being a dog.
They eat. They sleep. They live life for the moment.
Country dogs chafe at any encumbrance. Some will barely tolerate a collar and leash. Once, we gave Wiggles a harness, presumably because he loved to ride on the driver’s seat of the car with the windows down while perched on Dads left arm. He was never tied to anything, but we thought it might look better. Wiggles hated that harness. As soon as it went on, all joy left his life and he would lie down refusing to budge until it was removed.
Dad said he understood how Wiggles felt because he always felt the same way about that mandated male garment of civilization, the neck tie.
After that the harness disappeared into a drawer never to be seen, and Wiggles rode free again.
But that’s because Dad was a dog man.
Richard Oswald, a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union, lives in Langdon, Missouri.