I’ve been a little concerned about my dog Leon. He scratches like crazy. I know he itches like crazy. He scratches his chest and ears frequently. But it seems most of his focus is on his hind end, which he scratches by little nibbling bites.
Sometimes he bites so hard he draws blood. Even when it’s not an open wound, it looks raw and tender. I try my best not to touch it.
Saturday morning he walked to the side of my bed, making the noise that means—in this context—“Get up, sleepyhead.”
My head felt as if a trapdoor spider had spun a home inside my skull. I did not feel like rising, yet. “Lie down,” I told him.
He made the noise again.
Mustering what strength I had I stretched my right arm over the side of the bed, laying my hand atop his head, and scritched behind his ears. He lifted his head so my hand slid down his neck. I kept scratching. He moved away, so my fingernails scratched their way down his spine as far as they could go until I lifted my hand up and away from his tender hind quarters.
Leon circled around and put his head near the edge of the bed.
I moved my hand back atop his head and scratched. He lifted his head, again, so my fingers slid down his neck, scratch, scratch, scratch, all the way toward his tail and I lifted my hand out of the way lest I touch the tender spot.
Leon circled around and started the routine again. I can be incredibly dense, but he is very patient with me. When I got toward his tail I kept scratching, not at the tender spots, but right at the top of his rump. He stood there and enjoyed the attention. He was pleased I finally understood what he was trying to tell me.
He looked back at me with soulful eyes, in a way that suggested, “You should repost one of the essays about us you wrote. You know, in honor of us being together four years this month.”
Without further ado:
I would guess that many who read these lines might find my observations rather banal. Stories of “a boy and his dog” are cliché. But I never really had a dog, growing up.
As a household of eight, we had family pets. Mostly cats. Which do nothing to obviate a child’s sense that he is not getting enough attention. I do remember a German Shepherd when I was very young. I remember him for jumping up on me and bloodying my nose. My mother, for a time, fancied herself a breeder of Miniature Schnauzers—and I have stories from those days—but they were always her dogs. When I was a teenager, Dad had a Rat Terrier he called Tee-tee, which was Vietnamese slang for ‘very little’—but she was always his dog.
My first wife was a cat lady, though she longed for an Afghan Hound. My second wife weaseled a rescue into our home. Don’t get me wrong. Dr. John Holliday was a bright Border Collie mix which I took to training classes and loved dearly. ‘Doc’ was the “dog lost to divorce” that put me of a mind to write Country music. My sister—with whom I shared a house afterward—had a big lug of a dog named Bertha, and later brought me a puppy I called Boadicea, though circumstances led to my being unable to keep her. When I moved in with my third wife she already had a Boxer-Mastiff mix that her son had begged to keep—long before I knew them—and which I have ended up taking care of. But Leon is the first dog which I, at age 50, raised from a puppy. From a mewling infant I could hold in one hand. And we have developed a strong bond. So bear with me if I wax sentimental about him.
Leon’s dame was a Husky. My wife—from whom I was then separated—got Leon from a fellow selling them out of the bed of a pickup truck in a Walmart parking lot. She paid $5. She kept him briefly at her apartment, naming him Leon Sumbitches after a character in the Achewood web comic. (I never call him that, anymore. I renamed him ‘Leon Trotsky’. I have no idea if his mother was Siberian Husky.)
Leon has some kind of genius. That is, inasmuch one can apply the term to one of his genus.
Leon hasn’t the well-trained obedience of a Lassie or a Rin Tin Tin. Leon is going to do the tricks he is going to do, and no others. And only when advantageous for him to do so. It isn’t the genius of the kid you knew in high school who did his Science Fair project on The Effect of X-Rays on Hamster Genetics. It’s more the genius of the brainy doper who did as little work as possible, got tolerable grades, and kept pushing the envelope to see how much he could get away with. It’s a match made in heaven.
Leon eats twice a day: in the morning, and about 4:30 in the afternoon. Either he knows what time it is, or he associates Judge Judy’s voice with feeding time. It could be either one.
He is an expressive dog, “talking” to me when he wants to go out, when he thinks it’s mealtime (when he hears Judge Judy!), when I’m not giving him enough attention, or when he’s thirsty. Sometimes he’ll come into the room and start talking to me, exasperated I’m sure because I haven’t yet learned all his commands. If I know all his immediate needs are met I’ll say, “I don’t know what you think is going to happen, but you’re probably wrong about it.”
Leon has a trick with the water bowl that makes me accuse him of being passive aggressive. Sometimes I’ll be sitting at my computer and hear him licking in his bowl like there’s no tomorrow. I say “in his bowl” because it soon becomes obvious that the bowl is empty. He keeps licking and licking until I get up and refill it.
A few years ago I crafted a notice for Petfinder.com because I still may have to find Leon a(nother) good home. In the ad, I noted that Leon responds to several voice commands, one of which is not ‘Come’. Among the commands he knows is ‘Lie down’: which he heeds in his own time, more quickly when convinced there’s no chance of diverting my attention. We use that at night when I am tucked in bed and he starts rustling about as if finding his nocturnal roots. When I say ‘Toy’ he will fetch one of the items falling into that category so we can play. He will heel on command. He also knows ‘Outside?’ and will go to the door if he wants, or give me a ‘Try again’ look if not.
The two commands he most readily obeys are ‘Sit’ and ‘Down’. (He recognizes ‘Down’ as having a context distinct from ‘Lie down’ and behaves accordingly.) It is my custom to have him respond to one or both of these commands when we come in from outside, and reward him with a Milk-Bone. I am really trying to get him to distinguish the commands and only obey to the one I give. But sometimes he anticipates me. I will tell him to sit and he goes prone, looking at me through the tips of his eyes to gauge whether he has the command right.
Last Sunday morning we did the routine without words. I brought him inside. He went into the kitchen. I had cooked a turkey earlier in the week and he remembered there being a bowl of bones on the counter. He was sniffing around for that. “Leon!” He looked at me. “Come here.” And as he did, I retrieved a Milk-Bone from the box atop the dryer. I just looked at him. He sat. I cocked an eyebrow in his direction. He scooted prone, mostly on his belly, his front legs splayed, his butt in the air, looking up at me with a familiar look. “Good boy!” I said, and handed him a treat, because he just cracks me up when he does those things.
Someone once told me, “If you want to experience unconditional love, get a dog or a baby.” Usually when a baby grows up she develops all her own needs and wants and issues that distract from that unconditional love. An adult dog loves as unconditionally as a puppy.
When I finish writing this, I will walk over for a nap on the couch. Leon will follow me, from wherever he happens to be in the room. When I lie down he will rest the bottom of his muzzle on my chest or belly and look at me with adoring eyes. Then he may nudge beneath my hand so I’ll scratch behind his hears, pet along his back, pat his belly. I’ll say, “Lie down!” and he may try for a little more affection, but eventually will turn a few languid circles and take his place on the floor beside me.
Those are the moments life is best.