for some reason today, I’m remembering all the dogs from my extended family when I was growing up. There weren’t that many of them. Mine is not a large family and many of my relatives never owned a dog, but there was usually one or two at big family gatherings at the lake. It’s kind of odd, looking back over so many years and reviewing a child’s memories with the adult, trainer’s knowledge that I have today.
The first dog I knew really well was Sandy, my grandparent’s dog. She was pretty small, a flop-eared, fawn-colored, short-coated dog that I remember Grandma saying was a Boxer/Cocker spaniel mix. I remember the night the Grands got her. They brought her over to our house to show her off — sleeping in a shoe box! Sandy loved to chase chipmunks in the forest at our cottage. She’d dash through the dry leaves making a terrible racket! After many years, she finally caught up with one and grabbed it. It died, of course, and Sandy didn’t understand why it didn’t get back up and run some more. Funny thing, the chipmunks stayed away from the woods near the cottage after that, and Sandy never chased one again.
But I really remember Sandy because of something we did that now, in hind-trainer’s-sight, I realize was not too safe. My Mom and Grandma always laughed and said how Sandy was “talking” to us “imitating” what we were saying. I don’t think so. You see, when someone would hug Sandy, and say “Awwwww….” she’d stiffen up and growl. Not only adults, but they allowed us kids to do that, too. Remembering, my skin crawls! I think poor Sandy was trying her best to tell us how uncomfortable she was with that sort of “attention!” Looking back, I think we were really lucky she was too polite to bite!
Then there was my Uncle’s dog, Czar. He was a huge, black-and-white, thick-silky-haired beast with ginormous paws and a massive head. Uncle Jim said he was part water spaniel because he liked the water. I don’t know if this was an adult joke aimed over the heads of us kids, or if he really didn’t know. I’m reasonably certain Czar was a Landseer Newfoundland. He was such a good-natured dog; gentle despite his enormous size, especially with us kids, that and my memories of his build, say “Newfy” to me.
And that dog did love the water! I remember one day when Uncle Jim and Grandma rowed out on the lake to fish. For some reason it was just us kids left up at the cottage with Czar, and Uncle Jim told us to keep him inside. Yeah right! Home-made screen door that didn’t stay shut and a dog stronger than any two of us kids. Well, Czar got out and headed straight for the lake. It wasn’t big, but it was no pond, either! That dog saw the boat at the opposite shoreline and swam across to get to Uncle Jim and Grandma. Uncle Jim made him swim all the way back beside the boat, too, dragged the soaking wet dog back up to the cottage and told us to KEEP HIM INSIDE. You can guess what happened! This time, Grandma insisted Czar be allowed in the boat for the return trip. Fortunately, it was a flat-bottomed boat, but Grandma had to bail plenty because of all the water carried on board in Czar’s coat.
My immediate family didn’t get our own dog until I was finishing grade school. She was a GSD, no papers, black with tan markings. My sister named her Val. Quite small, she never topped 50 pounds, but she was one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever known. It made her easy to train — good thing, too, because from what I recall we were pretty bad at it. I remember Mom doing the then-classic, rub-the-puppy’s-nose-in-the-accident style of house-training. (Called house-BREAKING then!) We never got her to accept a collar or walk on a leash — she was too smart for us and threw a drama queen fit at each attempt. But she was a true “velcro” dog and could be trusted to stay no more than a few feet away no matter where we took her. She mostly came when called, too, and I have NO idea how we managed that one! I distinctly remember doing the number one no-no of calling her over for punishment on more than one occasion. I think that dog just loved us so much that she wasn’t happy wandering away!
By that time, Czar had been succeeded in my Uncle’s household by a GSD, with papers, named Lady. She was very big for a bitch, almost twice the size of Val, but the two were BFFs from day one. Like a lot of Shepherds do, they wrestled and ran and played hard accompanied by much growling and snarling. At times, the neighbors would be concerned that a dog fight was going on in the back yard, but they really were just playing! When the two families were together, the dogs were inseparable, except when we went swimming. It’s kind of ironic that Uncle Jim went from Czar (who couldn’t be kept out of the water) to Lady (who couldn’t be coaxed INTO it!) Val, loved water and would take off the end of the dock like dogs do in diving competitions now!
Now that I think of it, Val wasn’t always the perfect poster child of recall — she did do some running once we got on the farm. Not alone, though, it wasn’t until we got her a “sister” — Tana, a GSD/Husky mix. The two of them would go off chasing things for hours. (Again, I can’t believe that the parents were rather OK with that – at least I don’t remember them trying to stop it from happening!) It was a rude surprise, too, because Val had always been so good. Just goes to show how instinctive that pack and chase behavior is in dogs! Because now that I think of it, there was another time Val refused to “recall” – when a black bear invaded our campsite in Alaska, and she chased him off. Good thing it wasn’t a grizzly, or the ending might not have been happy!
Tana was a very different kettle of dog from Val. She could be very sweet, but was much more independent, stubborn, and often defiant. Now, I know enough to call her a dominant animal. When she was still quite a small puppy, she would react to disciplining by squaring off and growling at us! It’s no wonder she got Val to “play hooky” with her – she was the top dog! She had a habit of grabbing a visitor’s hand in her mouth (stranger or family, it was all the same) and walking off, so the person was kind of forced to walk along until she let go. I’m astonished that we didn’t see that as not-really-playful behavior.
As I said, it’s interesting to walk down memory lane with old canine friends, knowing what I know now. Somehow, I think we were saved from dire consequences simply because the dogs were part of the family and loved us very much. They forgave us some really incredible blunders and our assurance of their love gave us the confidence to forge on as true leaders would, even if we were oblivious to the undercurrents and possible problems. It worked, but I think it all worked because the DOGS made allowances for us.