I have to say right off that I’m not much of a dog person. It’s not that I don’t like dogs. I just feel uneasy when around them and I’m not sure where this stems from. I was never attacked or chased down by dogs as a child, never had any negative experience at all really. But when I encounter one - particularly a dog whose head is at groin level or a breed with an unfortunate killer reputation - I sense a deeply inbred intelligence, a yearning to dominate and challenge. There’s an overwhelming feeling of being observed with an instinctual malice. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe they just want to play, to engage me as if I were a walking plaything. Or chew toy.
My friends, Henry and Frank own a pair of beautiful Border Collies named Mamie and Bess. They are devoted to them and as with most people who own dogs, treat and pamper them like they are their children. These are kind and loving relationships between dog and man but the ‘dog bug’ has never bitten me.
On a visit to Henry and Frank’s house, my knock on the door is greeted with the double barking and ruckus of Mamie (May-me) and Bess as they barrel down the stairs to engage the intruder. Once they see it’s me, they quiet down and allow me to peaceably enter. I too relax but still entertain a lingering memory of Frank and Henry telling me on first meeting the dogs specifically, not to stare at Mamie.
“Don’t stare at Mamie,” they said in unison. “She’s had a history of snapping at people’s faces. It’s a territorial thing. Something like that. Just ignore her.”
Border Collies are very smart. I hear they’re very good at herding sheep, cows and the elderly. Henry said she’d never hurt anyone. It was just a precaution. I began to wonder how she got the name ‘Mamie’.
In the beginning, I did my best to stare at the ceiling fan if the dogs were in the room. Frank said I didn’t have to go to such an extreme. He explained there was an easy way to tell the dogs apart. Though both dogs looked exactly the same to me, Bess had a white spot on the top of her head. Or was that Mamie?
My nervousness grew. Every once in a while, I’d drop my eyes and try to get a quick bead on where the dogs were lurking. There... one was off in the corner of the kitchen, pretending to sleep, and the other... Christ! right beside my foot! her muzzle barely touching my toe, eyes raised, fixed lazily on me! Boy, they were smart. Were they testing me? Gauging my every move?
I’ve heard that dogs can smell fear and if that was the case then I reeked of ‘Eau I’m Bleeding’. This was ridiculous. I wanted very much to reach down and pet the beast (Good Girl!!) and put an end to my paranoia but then realized I wasn’t sure which dog it was. Mamie or Bess? White spot, no spot. I didn’t want to examine or stare at her head trying to locate a spot. She might misinterpret this. Moreover, my heroic effort to connect would end in a snap with me staring at the pink stump of Spam that used to be my writing hand, which I had unwittingly used, in quick reflex to protect my face.
I entertained another approach.
"So... does Mamie sleep a lot... back there in the kitchen?" My voice was high and lilting like a young girl. Then I remembered once hearing that you should talk in a low voice around dogs. Or was it a high voice? Maybe that was around cows. No, a low voice for dogs. Yes that was it. Or did that sound too much like a growl? How about a normal voice.
“Come Mamie.” Frank said. “Time to eat.” With that, Mamie darted from my foot, joined by Bess, and tails wagging devoured their bowl of meaty Kibbles.
“We’ll leave the collars and treats by the front door,” Henry said in a short instructional phone conversation. Doing this favor was privately a big step for me. I didn’t tell them that I had some reservations about taking the dogs for a walk. It’s like when someone asks you to baby-sit their child for an hour. That I can handle, having a child of my own. With children, you can discuss, reason and if necessary, clobber to stay in command. Dogs are a different breed. A child may test your patience but a dog can take your leg.
“What do you mean they’re gone?”
It was my worst nightmare scenario. Somehow, this simple task of going for a walk would end with the dogs getting loose and I’d be left, limp leash in hand, staring at the two faint dots disappearing on the horizon, the whoosh of the highway just beyond.
“Ha! Gee, you’ll never believe what happened!” I’d say, holding up my self-inflicted stump of pink Spam.
“I guess they really wanted their freedom! Those dogs sure were smart!”
When I arrived to pick them up, they came barking and hurling at the door. I quickly announced ‘Walk! Do you want to go for a walk!’ an instruction Henry had suggested, at which point both dogs settled and calmly waited for the coronation of the collars. (Who’s the boss now!!!)
Out the door, they immediately proceeded to tow me along the path toward the beach, sniffing and peeing along the way. (Boy, were they strong!!!) There was no way that I was going to go to the beach where there was a good chance of meeting up with other dogs so I steered them around several houses and after much lurching and tugging, gradually made my way back to the house. Along the way, they had vacuumed the underside of every bush and examined every moving blade of grass and previous dumpsite around. I had nervously scanned the area, looking out for other dog-walkers. (Don’t dogs attack each other when they get together?)
Once back inside, I uncollered them and dealt out the treats, all the while assuring them that Frank and Henry would be back soon to give them a ‘real’ walk. I was panting. I tossed a few extra treats down the hall. As they spirited after them, I quickly slipped out the door, locked it and went home.
“Oh they were just great. No problem. Yeah, it was fun! Great exercise! They sure are strong dogs.”
It’s a Saturday evening at Henry and Frank’s home and I’ve had a cocktail or two. I find myself at ease in a chair and staring at Mamie. Is she still a challenge? Who has control here, the beast or me? My relaxed state of mind tells me to keep on staring. She wouldn’t snap. Not now. I feel pretty sure that she knows me. We’ve bonded.
The dog doesn’t hold my gaze, most likely bored by my presence, shifty frown and delusional mind game.
I smirk and allow a fleeting sense of superiority, then think that maybe, as usual I’ve been staring at the dog with the white spot on her head.