Learning Lessons from a Dog named Rose

She’s a “tricolor” Border Collie, a black and white 50-pound dog with a brown smatter in her cheeks and flanks. The smatter is all but obscured by a white blaze that begins at her nose, ascends to the top of her head, and then leaps over a band of the jet blackness of her topsides to merge in the white collar at her withers, finally to reemerge in the brilliant sternlight that quivering, tail-wagging bundle of curiosity riveted at any given moment (and for only a moment) upon the architecture of a gopher hill, a flitting songbird scratching for seeds beneath a shrub, a person of either gender that comes within her purview. We’re sure she would thereby make a disturbing presence to any sheep or cattle she might encounter professionally. Those are the beings she was especially bred to irritate and guide. Among her intriguing physical features is the pink glow of her hide that shows through the thin white bristle of her snout—no doubt the source of her name, which she has acknowledged as her own from our first meeting.

We found her at the Red Wing Pound in the Fall of 2016. She sat trembling and silent in the center of her cage, surrounded by a dozen barking cellmates, each standing at the glass doors of their particular cages, straining to present their adoption credentials to any visitor capable of tolerating the  desperate cacophony of the place.  At least in part, we chose her because she looked as we felt—anxious to escape the place as soon as possible. She was then four and a half years old.

We took her for a trial walk, watched her wrestle hesitantly with a brother (with whom she had been turned over to the Pound by the grieving widow of the farmer who had raised them), paid for her inoculations and the implantation of a tracking chip, and stopped off on the way home for food, bed, kennel, games and leash.

Neither our lives nor hers has been the same since. She immediately destroyed the household regimen that was just beginning to crystallize for us in Red Wing—and quickly succeeded in establishing her needs and preferences to guide its replacement. Mornings now belong almost entirely to Rose. She expects—and receives—profuse apologies for the appropriation of even an hour of any one of them for an errand, a haircut, or a meeting in town. And there is no hiding any such appropriations. Changing dress (even from one casual outfit to another), hair-combing, teeth-brushing, wallet, phone and car-keys-gathering tell her that a violation is imminent. She then stamps into her kennel, criticism of us written in every facial expression and disgusted posture.  When we return from even the briefest absence, she bolts from her compound in full chortle (she almost never barks), slips and falls on the wood floor making the sharp turn to the stairs down to the front door, pauses there only long enough to notice that neither of us is adequately responsive to her manifest interest in an outing. One of us eventually gets her into her walking harness and out onto the streets and byways of Wacouta, where the hysteria gives way to a studied hunting expedition, usually of squirrels.

In this and in many other ways, she has taught us to think differently and better about the human and animal worlds—indeed, about the creation in general. All three of us have benefitted from this constantly interrupted but continuing seminar. For example, Rose is becoming practiced in the art of canine sociality. (She has a surplus of the human variety). And we are learning to forcefully pronounce the word “no,” and to enjoy the benefits of actually meaning it.

Rose has never, to our knowledge, met a human being that she was unwilling to follow to the ends of the earth. With Anne and me both ineffectually (and somewhat jealously) shouting, “No! Off!” she leaps upon any who come within range, standing before them (if they haven’t gone terrified into full retreat) with her paws upon their shoulders, looking lovingly (and, in the case of five footers,  levelly) into their eyes. Both the lunge and jump of this maneuver are invariably accompanied by a full tail wag—the stern light fluffed out and flashing in a peculiarly asymmetric vertical arc (or horizontal pump). When a dog of any sort and size shows up, she is just as fascinated, but the body-language dhospitality goes entirely out of her. The lip curls; the tail goes still and straight; the head drops and the ears lie flat along the skull. Before we’ve succeeded in pulling her up, she has attacked dogs twice her size. These strikes are sudden, and as suddenly abandoned. The victim flees as soon as released, and Rose’s  masters (a major misnomer in her case) are left to offer apologies, cast about for a diagnosis, and try yet another ameliorative therapy. From these incidents, we fear for our reputation rather than hers—even as we note that dog walkers in our neck of the woods (and perhaps of greater relevance, in our age range) ask for and usually well remember the names of the dogs they meet, and show little or no interest in the identities of their masters and mistresses.)

Anne and I arrived at the Pound the day we found her with a Border Collie bias. Mine was of Pam, the deranged but brilliant drover of the dairy herd on the Ohio farm in the 1950’s. Anne’s was of Misty, the brown-and-white beauty who accompanied her into our marriage 24 years ago and spent the last four of her 12 years with us in the Pacific Northwest.

Pam knew which of the twelve milking, fresh, or dry Holsteins for which we had stanchions went where. If one of them got into the wrong stall, she got it into the right one with nips and barks, somehow avoiding the head-butts or stampings that were directed at her for her trouble. But when she was off-duty, she was ready for play—for example, seizing in mid-air, six or seven feet above the ground, one bite of every forkful of manure flung into the spreader for Winter application to crop fields. My father and I tested her at different heights and horizontal speeds and were never able to get a fairly tossed morsel above or past her. This behavior, aided by her preference for very close association with carrion, guaranteed that she would never become a house dog; she and her “Heinz dog” (i.e., 57 varieties) compatriots got one meal a day from us and found the rest as best they could in field, stream and barnyard. I have no recollection of her sleeping or nuzzling anyone in supplication of a gentle petting. I remember her as always on her own terms, and in perpetual motion.

Misty brought a truly remarkable capacity for shedding into our newly-wed household, the rich daily quota of which she affectionately rubbed into the business suits I wore to my work at Pacific Lutheran University. Although it took yards of masking tape each month to remove that rufous deposit, I counted the traces of it as her approval of me as a fit successor to her mistress’s former spouse. She led us at a jaunty pace up and down the hills of Steilacoom on the weekends, rose from her backseat lair to pant and drool on the gearshift lever whenever Puget Sound leapt into view against the backdrop of the Olympic Mountains after an inland outing, and greeted us warmly at the back door when we came home from work. When the lumbago in her back and hind legs began to immobilize her, I carried her 60 pounds upstairs each night and down each morning, anticipating with Anne the blast of anguish that would come with the decision to put her down. We recognized our desperate wish to avoid that bitter cup as the very fear that tempers and sometimes extinguishes the dawning of every new love—including our own! This was the first really important lesson we learned from a dog.

Learning that lesson meant that we enthusiastically adopted a dog that might very well die ahead of one or the other or even both of us. And it deafened us, appropriately, to the gratuitous warnings given us by several friends and well-intentioned consultants: “Border Collies demand lots of real work, and will leave you and your household un-badgered and un-chewed only if fully employed in enterprises to which they have been bred!” Rose’s presentation of timidity—which turned out to be an adoption strategy flim-flam—deepened our deafness. But it was really the biases that we acquired from living with Pam and Misty that convinced us to bring Rose home that day now nine months’ past.

It took us a full week to learn the extent and refinement of her toilet training and another couple to discover an accident-free routine sensitive to her retentive capacities, sleeping and waking habits, and exercise needs.  Rose, herself, invented most of this routine. It begins at 5:45 a.m. each morning—invariably, whether we’re on Standard or Daylight Savings time—when she wakes us by pushing her wet snout far enough under the covers on each side of the bed to make contact with our faces or the backs of our necks. She expects one of us (that has turned out most regularly to be me)  to accompany her on an early-morning, even pre-dawn, survey of the property, and the other (Anne) to have her breakfast ready when she returns from this investigation. In fact, Rose is ready to undertake her morning sniff only after she is sure that Anne has actually opened the dogfood cabinet and has  freshened her drinking water.

Rose’s morning sniff takes about 15 minutes. She focuses first on the breeze blowing over the Mississippi, either from Wisconsin or from Southern Minnesota and Iowa. She stands stock still at the edge of the bluff, 82 wooden-steps above the river—ears, tail and head up, nose quivering, obviously sorting out a rich array of scents and odors that surely includes Beaver, Goose, nesting Ducks, Gizzard Shad (partially eaten by Bald Eagle fishers who sometimes drop the remnants on Wacouta rooftops, as if expressing their clear preference for Walleyed Pike), and—closer in—Wild Turkey, Coyote, Fox, Racoon, and, of course, Skunk. Then she turns her attention to ground smells left during the night by the passing of deer, cats, other dogs, rabbits, etc. Throughout the sniff, both of air and ground, Rose is more than half expecting to catch the sound and sight of a squirrel—fleeing the neighbor’s bird feeder, swinging from tree to tree, chortling down a taunt upon the earthbound huntress. One early Spring morning, when Rose and I were out for our daily mile-or-so walk, she bounded six or seven feet up an 18-inch diameter tree in a vain attempt to spike the taunts of two grey squirrels that had been baiting her from the high branches of a small wood. I was surprised to see her that far up the tree; she was surprised to realize there was nothing to hold onto once the momentum of her bound ended, with the tree still standing and the squirrels still in it. She landed hard—but her fascination with squirrels has never wavered.

Rose’s squirrel fetish has made her especially aware of bird life. She is used to watching their arboreal acrobatics and thus notices with a mezzo-soprano bark we’ve heard only a couple of times any Bald Eagles, Pileated Woodpeckers, Crows or Wood Duck pairs roosting or exploring for nesting sites in the trees overlooking the bluff. (The most extensive bark we’ve ever heard from her was directed at a neighborhood Irish Setter whom she caught surreptitiously removing an antler fragment from her garden trove of such treasures. The effect on the Setter was merely to speed up his flight.)

Her passionate pursuit of squirrels sometimes endangers her pack-mates. She brought me hard to earth during an early-Spring morning sniff when she caught the sound of a squirrel rummaging in a neighbor’s yard. At the time, I was quietly admiring a spectacular sunrise with my end of her leash securely wrapped around my left wrist. Very suddenly, I was pivoted 180 degrees to my right, and went down in what I’m sure was a spectacular flop.  She seemed to accept responsibility for the fall. Instantly she gave up on the squirrel to nuzzle my prone and groaning form. (She does something similar when I start the floor-exercise segment of my nightly stretching; she leaves her kennel to stand above me, looking for signs of life. Once she realizes that I’m still alive, she accepts a brief hug as her due and immediately returns to her lair. We have wondered whether she would stand long enough over a fallen master to allow him or her a life-saving draught of Aardbeg, Laphroig,  or Lagavullin—as brandy was once allegedly offered fallen travelers in the Swiss Alps by Saint Bernards trained by monks to supply it from collar-borne flasks. We have doubted that such training would pass muster with the current monitors of inhumane treatment of animals. But the real reason we have not undertaken it is that we simply do not share the same taste for the Islay eaus d’vie—one of the really daunting challenges of our marriage!)

Rose’s care-giving instincts are naturally compromised by the extraordinary attention she pays to her own interests, especially her gustatory ones. As soon as I remove her leash at the end of the morning sniff, she bounds up the stairs to her dining site in the kitchen. If breakfast has not yet been served, she scouts for Anne. We can easily imagine her folding her forepaws expectantly, and chortling out the reminder that she receives but two meals a day, and there is simply no excuse for delaying either breakfast or dinner. In any case, she bounds up and down the seven steps from the front-door to the living level while I’m dressing for the morning sniff, all in anticipation of a breakfast not yet served. And we are convinced that the occasional abbreviation of the morning sniff is exclusively caused by her anticipation of breakfast. She wolfs—Martin Clunes, aka Doc Martin, claims that 95% of domestic dog DNA is of a piece with that of wolves—down her food, morning and night, faster than any farm boy ever ate his supper in anticipation of a ball game a bike-ride away. She gets a cup of dry (and expensive!) food down in less than a minute.

Nothing brings her as close to perpetual motion, and to a full concert of pre-bark alto yelps, than our return to the house from a two or three hour absence. Even the end of an hour’s separation from us turns her into a whirling dervish. Her in-house compound is carpeted. At least half of her antic, which can only be understood by even the least anthropomorphic among us as “unmitigated joy”, consists of skating across the newly-installed wood floor of our living quarters (her in-house compound is carpeted), often on her side, flying down the seven stairs,  ricocheting off the front door, repeatedly jumping upon each of us (sometimes as vigorously as she once attacked the squirrel-bearing tree),  all the while yelping steadily in an alto key.

We have been told by Dog Whisperers that this behavior is actually our doing! By fussily apologizing for leaving her alone, assuaging our guilt by making our return a momentous event, we make every leave-taking an excuse for a frantic reunion! To correct this, we are now doing our best to return as though we were never gone. But this is like asking her to forget that it’s suppertime. So—instead of ignoring her, we remonstrate with her: “Stop that! Calm down! You’ll get neither food nor affection until you stop this misbehavior!” We are then, of course, obliged to reward her for even the slightest lessening in the hysteria with a snack and a vigorous pet. And that perpetuates the behavior. The embarrassing truth may very well be that we welcome her hysteria as a sign of her affection for and dependence upon us. A calm, non-yelping Rose would be much less interesting to us than the existing version.

Indeed, I fear that we are actually widening the realm of her domination of us in other ways. For example, we are finding spare moments during the day to take her out for urinary relief. She uses these always for a short walk and a miniature sniff, but only occasionally for their intended purpose. And on these rare occasions, she punctuates her achievement with a stylized effort to cover and obscure the deed with a great turf-throwing, four-paw scratch fest that resembles a pacer in perfect stride making no forward progress whatsoever. She does this with such stylized, show-dog pride that the scratching seems meant to mark her passing rather than to hide it—like  self-conscious mothers who instruct their children in loud voices and sophisticated language in public places.

She gets her morning and evening food down so quickly that we wonder when she’ll find nutritional value in the food pan itself. She finds the kitchen garbage container quite fascinating, but the only loss Anne and I have suffered so far was of a half-dozen sea scallops that were thawing on a cutting board just beyond (we thought) the limit of her standing reach. Such items are now placed another two feet higher—on the 48-inch warming shelf under the exhaust hood for the pride of the kitchen—a four-burner, two-oven, one griddle and one grill Viking.

We knew very little about her life and circumstance—her pack and its history—before our meeting in the Fall of 2016. The Pound’s “Rose” file reported that she had been brought in “matted and dirty” by a widow who had been led by her husband’s untimely death to give up the farm on which Rose and her brother had spent four of their five years of life.  Without any hard evidence, we surmised that the farm probably lay along the Mississippi between Hastings, Minnesota and Alma, Wisconsin. We had ourselves just declared our Wacouta “cabin” at the head of Lake Pepin—about halfway between the Hastings and Alma locks-and-damns—our ultimate (at least penultimate) home. It helped us think well of that decision to believe that by way of it we were also restoring Rose to her home.

The great river fascinates each of us. Both Anne and I have positioned our desks in the parlor—a room with 75% of its wall space given over to floor to ceiling windows looking up, down and across the river in a 180 degree arc from the northwest to the southeast. From behind my computer during a single hour on a wind-filled,  sun-dappled Spring day, I may see a dozen mature and a half-dozen immature Bald Eagles, a gaggle of five or six Turkey Vultures, the outriders of a migrating troop of white pelicans, a great blue heron (legs trailing, far too long for compact on-board storage—some cutting through a 15-knot breeze on a steady flap, others soaring in the updrafts, calling to mind Yeats’ gyres of The Second Comng. Smaller raptors, ducks, and even larger foraging birds—cranes and swans—weave in and out of the tableau with the seasons.

For three of the seasons, flotillas of as many as 16 barges (five ranks of three each and “one on the hip”, i.e., lashed directly to the towing vessel—which actually pushes rather than pulls the barges) move up and down in the dredged channel day and night. Even the briefest glance at the river suggests life, teeming even as in transition—maturing, advancing, leaving, coming.

And the bluffs and palisades that line the “upper” river on both sides host a rich life of mammals, wild turkeys, songbirds and land-borne invertebrates. Rose leads us each morning through the shadow of “Rattlesnake Bluff”, the 200-foot sheer face of which has been attempted, we’ve recently learned, by a mountaineering son-in-law during one of the 8 or so bi-annual Blended-family Thanksgivings we’ve convened at Red Wing. (One of the several divorces that have transfigured two generations of Anne’s family and mine has denied us direct testimony of the adventure.)

Rose scouts for game during our morning walks, but she has yet to catch or even to confront any. The walks are peripatetic, constantly interrupted by evidence—known only to her—that something interesting passed this way recently. Not only does she smell and hear better than her master and mistress; she sees better. The sign that she has noticed a herd of deer crossing her path, or an eagle close overhead, or a canine barely visible in the distance is her assumption of a rather work-a-day Pointer stance—head up, ears erect (except for the very tips); stiffly immobile (except for the quivering nose); all four feet firmly planted. Indeed, she lifts a leg only to get a tootsie out of slush or to leave a marker of her own passing after the male fashion. (Otherwise, she seems content with her gender and squats to leave sign of her itinerary.

In all of this, and despite her sweet temperament with people, she confirms in a hundred ways Martin Clunes’ axiom that she is mostly wolf. For example, we’re just beginning to grasp the  specific roles Rose herself plays or has assigned to us in her “pack”—“procurer” for Anne; “enforcer” for Bill; “gracious appreciator” for Anne; “nay-saying critic” for Bill; “manipulable” for Anne; “manipulable x 2” for Bill.

So—Rose is helping us make home—finally!—in the River Place we’ve owned and often visited for almost 20 years. Indeed, we sometimes wonder whether she hasn’t somehow acquired legal title to the property—and registered it in a more secure cache than the one which once contained her deer antler.

We would never have adopted her to live with us in the city; we miss the city less because we have her in the country.

But our relationship with Rose—and with each other—is mysteriously affected by her “dog aggressiveness”. We have invested more in relieving her, and ourselves, of this particular form of anti-social behavior than in any other part of her training. And she is much improved. Nevertheless—and just when we had begun to hope that she was over it—Rose attacked a profoundly pleasant Cocker Spaniel after an exceedingly brief and quiet encounter. I was walking her at the time, and had asked the spaniel’s owner to allow the two a tentative sniff. Rose burst upon the other dog and brought it onto its back before I could intervene. Aside from some traces of saliva generated in the heat of the moment, no visible wound was discovered, and my apologies were accepted by the spaniel’s owner.

But the setback has made us consider such radical options as: acquiring another dog as a companion; finding a regular walking mate in the neighborhood; teaching her an array of micro-sports that would keep her in the yard and yet lower her reserves for hyperactivity. Most of all, we’re trying to figure out what she is trying to accomplish by snarling rather than sniffing at other dogs. Are the ones that attract her ire male or female? Spayed or sexually active? Is it particular pheromones that set her off? Something about the appearance or approach of the other dog?

The deep contrast between Rose’s human sociality and her contrary attitude toward those of her own kind has made us wonder whether particularly shy or agoraphobic folk, or even misanthropes, might suffer this contrast in reverse.  In either case, the attitude entails agreement with Hobbes’ description of the human condition as a war of each against all. But our reflection on Rose’s behavior is leading us to think her growling and snapping at an encountered canine may very well be protection of us, a communitarian or “pack” instinct utterly denied to his fellow humans by Hobbes’ axiom that “life in the state of nature is nasty, poor, brutish, solitary and short”.  We agree that Rose’s pedagogy won’t provide Swift (Jonathan) with new reasons to prefer the Bee to the Spider in the Battle of the Books—but we think the jealousy that seizes Rose when one of us offers a friendly pet to a strange dog is very preliminary proof that Hobbes’ quintessentially modern characterization of human nature is wrong. Rose may be a true Lutheran: a Reformer for whom “drover” is her Calling, and the community (“herd”? “pack”?) to which she is in service is constituted of Anne, herself and me!

The power of Rose’s pedagogy to illumine such matters may be fading. We have been trying hard to raise her tolerance of other dogs; to delay her first snarl, to relax her curled upper lip, even to offer a little welcome to the new-met canines. Her suspicion of strange canines has always been codependent on her curiousity about them. The advancement of her sociality seems to depend less on us and more on the urbanity, experience, and (we suspect) gender, of her new acquaintances.  Of every 10 dogs that she meets nowadays, she both gives and accepts an exploratory sniff from about half of them. This ratio may depend on a fair representation (namely 50%) of males. The other day, an 11-year-old Chocolate Lab came up from Wabasha with the delivery of our new lawn mower. Although Rose can no more abide lawn mowers than vacuum sweepers, she continued to discreetly investigate various features of the Lab even as its master demonstrated the operation of the lawn mower!

Whatever becomes of her sociality, Rose has brought us a sweet disposition and a whole cartload of fascinating psychoses which we have been exploring assiduously and with great joy—stumbling along in parallel on either side of Adam’s Wall, unable to see each other over it or to hear each other through it. Our progress in mutual understanding depends, instead, upon what we earnestly trust is a cautious anthropomorphism on our part, and “caninemorphism” on hers. Hence, for example, we are reluctant to conclude from Rose’s occasional appearance of shame that she has done her business in the basement—unless evidence suggests that she has (and then we avoid punishment if we doubt she’ll grasp the connection between the unfortunate deed and its disciplinary consequence).

Nevertheless, we have learned much about ourselves from Rose—and believe she finds us worth her care and protection. Among other things, she bears well the critical responsibility for getting us up each morning whether we wish to or not—and of making us careful of both her and our own nutrition.

And she surprises us in some way or another every day!

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