August 19, 2011

The paper police dog

Maybe it’s easier to be mystical, spiritual in this setting. Maybe my father’s death two years ago this month is still raw enough that many things during a day unexpectedly remind me of him.
At first, I didn’t think a thing about it when a black German shepherd showed up in our garage one evening, tore through a box of trash to lick the grease off discarded lava rocks from our small grill, then settled down for a snooze. The scene presented itself when I checked to see if the garage door was closed. I told him to git, and he got.
Finding a stray dog on our property isn’t the least unusual. A new family moved in next door about a year ago, and brought with them 15 dogs, two horses, cats, rabbits, birds, and who knows what all. The owner formerly ran a dog kennel and brought with her all those she couldn’t give away by moving time. She now also “fosters” more dogs for the Humane Society. The noise of them all is irritating, distracting and, when I’m trying to work, enraging. Twice, two of them showed up in our yard, snarling and charging Vicki, then me. There are also chickens to protect. I promised our neighbor that if there is another confrontation with her dogs, I’ll shoot them.
It was a hard thing to say, even harder to mean. We’re genuine animal lovers, and that applies to most kinds. Other than shooting squirrels, I go out of my way to help animals. The squirrels have chewed out the front of Vicki’s favorite porch rocker. Last week, for the third time, they gnawed through the gas line on my truck, and had started on a wiring harness. I’ve tried many ways to stop them – poison, rubber snakes, marking my territory with urine – to little effect.
We’ve come to a kind of détente with our neighbors, after a higher fence was added to their dog run, and we befriended their kids, who’ve visited twice just to chat. They keep their dogs somewhat quieter, and there’ve been no more canine confrontations.
Still, finding the black dog snoozing among scattered trash in our garage wasn’t a shock. I yelled at him to beat it, and he calmly rose and trotted away, whining a little.

The next day, Vicki was outside and turned to see what had made a noise behind her. The black dog reared, put his huge feet on her shoulders, and grinned, ears up and tongue hanging. She pushed him down and scolded him, and he went away. Later in the day, he trotted up and laid down at her feet, looking up for approval. Then he ran a little way off, picked up a rock, brought it back and dropped it at her feet. “He wanted to play,” she said.
That night, he slept on our front porch, curled up on the welcome mat by the door. It’s where we found him in the morning.
We both know something about animals, and are learning more by the day. Our family had a dog while I grew up; Vicki has owned several. I’d had three cats by the time we met. At that point, my only pet was a bird named Monk, and he’d already proven himself a sincerely loving and comforting companion.
I was living alone in a ragged apartment, going through a divorce, when I found him. I’d always wanted some type of parrot, and stopped in a nearby tropical fish and bird shop to see if there was one I could afford. Only a few parakeets and finches fell in that range. But while the owner, Sue the Bird Lady, brought several other types out of their cages to rest on my arm, one chose me. He was a maroon-bellied conure – a small parrot, about the size of my hand – mostly bright green, and had been “previously owned.” Buying used birds can be a bad idea. Their separation sometimes leaves trauma that they act out in a variety of unpleasant ways. But when Sue showed me how to lay a finger across his belly, and he stepped up on it, this little guy didn’t seem to be holding any grudges. He trotted up my arm to the crook of my elbow, and nestled in, looking up with a “Now what?” expression.
“The guy who had him was getting married, and the fiancée told him either the bird goes or she goes,” Sue said. “I would’ve kept the bird.”
I told myself I really couldn’t afford him, and it was true. I told myself if he was still unsold in two weeks, it was meant to be and I’d take him home. The two weeks passed, he was still at the shop, and I kept my promise.
Monk on Baby
He’s a charming character with enough goofy quirks that I gave him the handle Felonious Monk, for the jazz pianist. Monk made himself at home immediately and found a favorite place to play – the open bathroom medicine cabinet, where he’d settle down and methodically peel the labels off everything inside. But he forever atoned for such behavior when, during some difficult physical reactions I had to quitting a particularly bad lifelong habit, he flew over to where I lay on a sweat-sodden couch, tucked himself under my chin, and stayed there for two days and a night, making a rough purring sound in his throat. We were in the trenches, and he helped me through.
When Vicki and I made our home together, it included Monk and her pet, Baby, a deeply neurotic kitty that must have gone through the wringer before Vicki found her at an animal adoption event. Tiny, matted with feces, trembling and stinking, Baby was named, nursed to health from near death, and given a home. We were a bit wary of having a cat and a bird in the same place, and never let Monk out of his cage unless we were present. Turned out there was no need. One morning he swooped down from his perch, landed on Baby’s back, and began rearranging her hair for a place to settle in. Whether from surprise or because of Monk’s playful, unthreatening demeanor, Baby let him stay and they’ve been pals since.
Vicki and I swore to each other there’d be no more pets. Then we walked into a chain pet store to get some food for Baby on the day it was hosting a local animal rescue outfit. I’ll cut to the chase: We were chosen again, and took home a preternaturally beautiful little ginger-and-white kitten we named Gracie. She is, Vicki says often, “100 percent cute” and warms our souls. She regards Monk as irrelevant and leaves him alone. After a few weeks of turf jealousy, Baby and Gracie made their peace and it has held.
This spring and summer as our chicks grew into chickens, we grew to love them for their entertainment value, while deciding to table tentative plans to add a couple of goats or miniature donkeys to our farm. There was also one absolute: No dogs. Vicki was especially adamant about it.
Then the black shepherd came to our home and wouldn’t leave. It was Vicki who put out a water dish for him, then a big helping of food. It was Vicki who suggested we at least get him a flea collar, and maybe a few treats. We also brought home some flea bath, a leather collar, more treats.
I had planned to pick his ticks this morning. He was covered with some of the most grotesque “tumors” I’ve seen. A little research showed them to be the bloated bodies of ticks, filled to bursting with doggy blood, and the size of a fingertip. When I went out to go to work on them, all but one had gone. I’m thinking the flea collar did it. He’s still flea-bitten all over his belly, still needs a good bath and – might as well jump in all the way – a visit to the vet.
He approaches every person and thing as a friend, so absent malice that when he waded into our feeding flock of chickens the other day and sat down, they began to pester him. He took it in good humor. Earlier today he trotted by me with a big boxer in tow. It had a collar and tag. Both held their heads and ears high, tongues flopping around, and enjoying life.
He looks like what once was called a “police dog,” big, nearly all black, with tan markings on his legs, and a glare that could make strong men pee. My dad, the career cop, used to enjoy telling me stories about his childhood pet, a police dog he named Pete, who acted as his personal bodyguard and catcher. Pete loved playing catch, even fast-pitched hardballs, and became a regular fixture at Dad’s sandlot games. Pete crowded the plate.
Pete and his snake
So in his memory, and for Dad, we named our black shepherd Pete. He came to us aching for love and some vittles. He may be able to keep the squirrels away from our vehicles, although he’s already made one of the rubber snakes another of his toys. He chose this as his home for some reason, and we decided not to question it.
Let’s just say I’m not big on coincidence. Pete’s here. Each night, he curls up just outside our front door, and his presence gives mute warning to the dark. Vicki already calls him Our Trusty Dog Pete. He came to us a little broken in, and generally sits when you tell him, stops when you tell him, and gits when you tell him.
But what kind of big dog peacefully endures the harassment of chickens? One without a mean bone in his flea-bitten body.
That’s our Pete, the paper police dog.


  1. I'm glad Pete found you and courted you as he did to slowly become a part of your family. What homestead in Tennessee would be complete without a dog? And perhaps he will keep the squirrels in check. I just had to have an engine harness repaired (thankfully not replaced) here in good ole Tucson, Az. It seems desert squirrels have a voracious appetite when it comes to expensive auto parts. So now I live with the smell of mothballs melting on the engine every day. Maybe one of Pete's southwestern cousins could swing by my place and lend a hand.

  2. I love Pete already and I can't wait to meet him!