Dog Days

By Chad A. Steed

November 8, 2017

Todd and I grew up in South Mississippi, where pine trees dominated the landscape. The pines grew fast and usually in dense clusters, which resulted in tall, narrow trunks. The air in the woods was filled with the intense aroma originating from the pine sap, which was sweet and fresh. When the autumn wind swept through the needles in the tree tops, it sounded like a thousand whispering angels. The wood was soft and elastic, which caused the trunks and branches to sway under the wind's influence. Needles and occasional cones dropped to the ground forming a thick blanket that choked out grass and all but the hardiest undergrowth. As we walked on our trails, the countless needles above and below us formed a chamber where sound was dampened. The resulting environment was encompassing and surreal, similar to that of a fresh snowfall.

As we navigated our trails, this serenity was punctuated by the cadence of needles crunching under our boots and the paws of at least one dog. We often overlooked this placid, but familiar, world, focusing instead on the creatures around us, particularly our dogs. Over the years, we were blessed by the companionship of many good dogs and each exhibited its own unique personality. Most were loyal, some were frisky, a few were protective, and a couple were downright lazy. Collectively, they enriched every experience we shared.

Other than a friendly temperament, we weren't picky about our dogs. The only one that failed to meet this basic requirement was an Eskimo spitz appropriately named Trouble. When I met Todd in the second grade, Trouble had been a part of his family for several years. I had nothing against the dog. In fact, I found his lean and strong stature impressive. Nevertheless, Trouble had it in for me from day one. If I was anywhere in the general vicinity when he was out, he would lock onto me like a heat-seeking missile. One summer day, I heard Todd and his brothers in the back yard, so I decided to walk around the side of his house, unannounced. As I rounded the north corner, Trouble spotted me and accelerated so fast in pursuit that I saw circular contrails rise out of dust. Knowing I was incapable of outrunning him, I scurried up one of the tall brick columns of the back yard fence. As I held on for dear life, Trouble lunged at my feet snarling like a savage beast. This and other less traumatic episodes made it clear that Trouble was, well, trouble. In time, Todd's parents sold him.

Todd's family kept a small female Eskimo spitz named Elizabeth, who was the antithesis of Trouble — gentle and sweet. However, she showed little interest in joining us as we played. About the same time, Todd's family also owned an English Bulldog, whose name I forgot over the years. He had droopy cheeks, abundant slobber, and frequent ear problems. He was interesting to look at, but he was old and lacked the initiative to join in our adventures.

The first dog that demonstrated a genuine interest in tagging along with us was a golden retriever. She was about six years old when my dad brought her home. She came with registration papers that declared her official name as Amber's Golden Nugget, but we just called her Beau. Whenever I rode my bike to Todd's house, she ran along beside me. When Todd came to my house to play, she greeted him at the edge of my yard. Whether we were playing ball outside or roaming in the woods, she stayed with us like white on rice. When we played inside, she would wait outside for us to return. Like most retrievers, she had a warm and friendly face. To me, it seemed like she was smiling all the time as the edges of her mouth tended to curve up. Her wavy fur coat was soft and golden, as was her heart.

As we trekked among the pines, climbed hills, slipped through barbed wire fences, and crossed the creek, Beau's presence comforted us. She often went ahead of us, clearing the way of any hostile creatures. We believed that if we ever hurt ourselves or lost or way, she could run for help or lead the way home, just like Lassie. She exhibited strength, tenacity, and intelligence through her odd obsession with dragging the neighbors' cast iron skillets and casserole dishes to my house. As I returned the objects to their rightful owners, I often wondered how she could drag such heavy things so far using only her mouth. The neighbors never complained to me about her thievery, but I'm sure it was annoying.

Beau was terrified of thunder, which was a problem in South Mississippi where severe thunderstorms developed almost daily. A clap of thunder miles away would send her running to the sliding glass door on our back porch. She raised up on her hind legs and pawed at the glass until the storm passed or I came outside to sit on the porch with her. In such moments, she revealed to me that we comforted her as much as she did us. In fact, the mutual need of one another was obvious in all our dogs.

With each passing year, life grew harder for Beau. She suffered from hip problems and too much weight. In the last days of her life, she could barely walk. Todd and I were about 14 years old when she died. I helped my dad bury her at the edge of the woods behind his shop — a makeshift pet cemetery where most of my dogs were buried. I often thought about them as I passed the area, but I was too young to comprehend their impact on our lives.

Some of our dogs left us far too soon. One such dog was Todd's basset hound that he named Barney. Like most bassets, his energy level was low, even as a puppy. If he joined us in the woods, it wasn't from devotion or obedience; it was more like he agreed with us. Even so, he usually only lasted about an hour running around on his short legs. When he ran out of gas, he laid down for a nap wherever he happened to be. Naturally, he was an entertaining dog. Barney also showed his patience by enduring our gentle tugs on his floppy ears and interruptions from naps. We enjoyed rubbing his belly and searching for the spot that made his leg kick. Unfortunately, Barney was stolen a couple of years after Todd got him. He suffered the same fate as two other dogs I owned: Chester, a black cocker spaniel, and Opie, an Australian shepherd puppy. In our otherwise quaint community, it was surprising how often dogs were stolen. I assumed it was the work of outsiders, but I never understood how anyone could steal a kid's dog.

Other than Trouble, the only other dog that didn't work out was a yellow Labrador retriever named Rowdy. He was kind, but, as his name implied, hyperactive. When he jumped on us, his powerful legs often knocked us to the ground. He didn't mean to harm us, he simply didn't know his strength. Rowdy was born to retrieve. When we played baseball, he chased down the ball after each hit scooping it up in his slobbery mouth. It would have been a great time saver if he ever brought the ball back. Instead, he played a game of keep away with us as we chased him around the yard. One day, I was pitching and Todd was batting. As I pitched the ball, Rowdy darted in to retrieve it too soon. Todd swung the bat and missed the ball, but he socked Rowdy in the head. I thought he would be dead, but that crazy dog just shook his head and darted after the ball. We were unsuccessful at taming Rowdy and soon my parents gave him away to a family, without kids, that lived on a large farm. We used to pass the farm on the way to my grandmother's house and a few times we saw them throwing sticks for Rowdy to retrieve in the pond. I was confident he was happier at his new home.

Through this cycle of acquiring, raising, and losing our dogs, we learned about the seasons of life. Energetic and rowdy as puppies, we watched them mellow in their middle age years as they accumulated scars and injuries. Gradually, we noticed them moving slower and losing their ability to tolerate the excessive summer heat. On the hot August days, we hosed them down to cool them off. Eventually, they lost their ability to keep up and sometimes when we left they chose to stay on the porch with their sad heads resting on their paws. We saw them fade away, usually suddenly, and felt the pain of losing a dear friend. In the weeks and months after they passed, the sight of their collar, food bowl, or spots where they lay confused me. It seemed like they could return any minute and we could resume where we left off. But that was impossible, as I slowly grew to accept. Each time we lost a dog, the fog of innocence that protected us from the harsh realities of a fallen world, diminished.

As kids, we had short memories, especially when something new and exciting entered our lives. Our parents knew this fact, and often brought home a new puppy in due time. After losing Barney, Todd got a new basset hound named Johnson. Johnson had more energy than Barney, so Todd trained him to hunt squirrels. He was a natural hunting dog. Todd and Johnson hunted in the woods behind his house for a couple hours after school several days each week. Johnson was every bit as amusing and patient as Barney, but he thought he was a beagle in the woods. Todd had a Sega video game system and we often stayed up late at night playing Madden. Johnson usually joined us as we played.

My parents bought an Australian shepherd puppy to replace Beau. I named him Bully after the Mississippi State University mascot. He was impressive, with a mostly red coat, white legs and belly, and a streak of white that tapered as it ran from his chest to his underside of his mouth. There's no question about it, Bully was the most energetic, athletic, and loyal dog either of us owned. He was a perfect companion, especially in the woods, and he got along well with Johnson. He was extremely protective of us and our families. Strangers were not welcome near us or our homes while Bully was on patrol. I remember one day, dad came home to find Bully had cornered a stranger on our carport. Dad said the man visibly trembled as Bully showed his teeth and growled with the hair on his back erect. Dad asked the stranger why he was on our carport, and he claimed car trouble. However, there was no car around, so Dad advised him to leave before Bully lost his patience. The stranger was all too eager to oblige.

Bully's whole world revolved around being in our presence. Like Beau, he followed us everywhere, only he was more nimble. When we started driving, Bully ran at his top speed beside our vehicles as we traveled between our homes. Each time I drove down my driveway to leave, Bully raced to a spot at the edge of my front yard that was closest to Todd's house. As I braked to check the traffic, he crouched down and watched my front tires. If the wheels turned toward Todd's house, he bolted like a cheetah in that direction, often beating me there.

When I spent the night at Todd's house, Bully slept under my truck, even in foul weather. He waited there for me until I emerged the next morning to go home, even though he had a nice dog house waiting for him at home. This simple act of loyalty was particularly touching to Todd's mom. She brought it to my attention one morning as I walked through their kitchen to leave. Although I had not noticed before, I began to pay more attention to Bully's devotion thereafter.

My first vehicle was an old Ford Ranger with a distinct acoustic signature. The muffler was bad and it sometimes backfired for no apparent reason. In an attempt to replace one noise with another, I installed a sound system that probably exceeded the value of the truck. As a result, Bully, and rest of the community, could hear me coming miles away. My dad told me he would run to end of the driveway a few minutes before I arrived each day and sit in the grass gazing in the direction of my approach with ears perked. When I turned into the driveway, he ran and jumped beside my truck. I grew to anticipate his greeting as much as he did my arrival. Regardless of how my day had gone, the welcome he gave me made everything right.

Bully was equally happy to see Todd. When he drove up my driveway, Bully ran out to greet him, bursting with joy. If he didn't open the door fast enough, literally while the car was still rolling, Bully would jump up on it. We cringed at the sound of his claws scratching the paint. Todd had every reason to be angry at Bully, especially when he got his new Mitsubishi Eclipse, but he always laughed it off and gave him a good scratch behind the ears.

Australian Shepherds are known for their ability to herd cattle. Although he never had any direct experience, sometimes Bully's herding instincts would kick in and he would nip at our friends' heels. During pickup basketball games, this often worked to our advantage as sometimes Bully ran into the action and nipped at the heels of a player on the opposing team at just the right moment. We often said he was our best player. One day, I was shooting baskets with Michael, another close friend of mine. Bully zipped in and ripped his sock completely off without his shoe coming off. Michael was unharmed, but understandably shocked.

During our high school years, Todd and I went through a period where we spent less time together than our earlier childhood. We were engaged in separate activities and time was limited. For me, it was baseball. For Todd, it was music. Bully and Johnson helped fill in the gaps during those years. When I got home from school, Bully was always there to greet me. As I exited my truck, he jumped and wiggled his stub tail with anticipation. We had an after school routine that he loved. Together, we ran down the hill to the creek behind my house. Bully switched into an intense hunting mode with his ears perked up and his eyes trained on the bushes around us. He searched for creatures, any creature, as I encouraged him to look. When I gave the command, he pounced on the first thing he could find, such as squirrels, possums, imposing sticks, or whatever else may be nearby. After continuing to hunt for an hour or so, I walked back home to feed Bully and have supper with my family. Todd had a similar routine with Johnson in the woods behind his house where they hunted for squirrels. If the wind was blowing right, I could hear Johnson's distinct howl echo through the hollow that ran between our family's land.

Todd and I spent more time together during our senior year, when I quit baseball and he dropped some of his music pursuits. However, we had jobs after school and trips to the woods slowly died away. Soon we graduated high school, left home, and gradually drifted apart. On our last day of high school, Todd's mom gave us a hug and, with tears in her eyes, told us it would never be the same after graduation. I think we doubted it at the time, but as she was right. Each year Todd and I saw less of each other as we went our separate ways. Our dogs remained at our parent's home for several years, greeting us when we returned. Eventually, Johnson and Bully each passed away and Todd and I went over a decade without any communication. When we did reconnect, these were some of the stories we reminisced about.

Like color to a Monet painting, these and other dogs played pivotal roles in our childhood. Their devotion was astonishing, even though we usually didn't deserve it. I know there were times when we ignored them as we focused on a new toy or activity. But they never held a grudge. In our early years, they provided almost constant companionship. During our teenage years, their unconditional acceptance helped us cope with the usual pressures and loneliness. Without their presence, our story would be dramatically different. Our world was complete, as we roamed with them under a canopy of pines. As it turned out, two boys, dogs, and piney woods was a beautiful combination.

© Chad A. Steed

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