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By River Stillwood
I’m a dog person. Always have been. Don’t get me wrong, I like cats. I’ve even had one so near and dear to my heart that when he died, I wept for days. He came to me late one night during finals week my first year of college. I was cramming for exams and had stopped to make an emergency run to the 7-11 for cigarettes, peanut M & M’s and strong coffee (I’ve since quit smoking). Just as I was pulling into the parking lot, I saw someone in another vehicle slow down, open the door, toss out a tiny, gray fuzzy thing, then slam closed the door and speed off. He’d thrown out a kitten. I adopted him on the spot.
After classes the next day, I took him to the vet for an exam and shots. The vet said he was about five weeks old and a healthy little fellow, but he had been exposed to feline leukemia and had a fifty percent chance of eventually dying from the disease.
Because of the unruly puffs of hair growing on his big feet and between his toes, I named the kitten Bilbo Baggins. This was in 1988, well before Tolkien’s books were made into films and the fact that hobbits grow hair on their feet became common knowledge.
Bilbo grew to be a big cat. Huge! Twenty-two pounds. Hardly an ounce of it fat. He was beautiful. Long and sleek. He had a medium length coat that was incredibly soft and the color of fog with a pure white belly and chin, big blue-black eyes and a natural smile. In the evenings when I sat at the desk studying or writing, Bilbo would climb onto my shoulders, drape himself around my neck, and purr happily until he fell asleep. In the summer, he’d spend nights curled up on the pillow beside my head. In the winter, he’d burrow in the crook of my knees. He was playful, gentle, and good spirited. Everything a cat should be. And more.
Three years after I brought him home, the feline leukemia lurking in his bloodstream became active. Six months and several bouts of illness later, he died. I was heartbroken. I loved that cat so.
Still, I’m a dog person. I like the way dogs relate to people and their world. I like how expressive they are, how active. Cats are languid. Dogs, vigorous. Cats observe. Dogs engage. Cats are pleased to see you. Dogs, overjoyed. These are oversimplifications, to be sure, but still more accurate than not.
Right now, I have five dogs. Well, four and a half. Three live with me: a big, red eleven-year old Chow-Golden mix named Nikita, a much smaller six-year old basset-beagle mix, Blink, and a very small rat terrier, Snippet. For the past year, my dear friends, Bert and Dean Scherer have been caring for my other dogs, an armadillo-hunting blue tick hound mix named Lily, and a Catahoula-lab mix, Savannah. Bert has grown quite fond of Savannah, so we’re sharing her. Thus the ‘half’ dog.
Bert and Dean are dog folks, too. One of the many reasons I adore them. They have two of their own indoor dogs, a dachshund and a Jack Russell, and a couple of beagles and a hound that live outside. They also have two outdoor kitties, mousers that keep the chicken coop and feed room free of vermin. Still, they’re dog people.
Like me, they pamper their dogs, feeding them good dog food seasoned with real meat and bacon drippings and other tasty leftovers. They pet their dogs, play with them, talk to them and make sure they get plenty of exercise and see the vet for shots and cuts and ailments. Simply put, we make sure our dogs are healthy, well-tended to, and enjoy the good life.
In return, all ten dogs are well-behaved and trained, more or less. They’ll usually come when called. They’ll usually sit if we ask. They keep critters at bay and they don’t dig up the gardens or chew up our belongings. The poop outside, bark when something’s up, and sleep when they they’re tired. Or hot. Or not otherwise occupied. They’re attentive when they need to be and maximize their off time when they don’t. In short, they do everything dogs should do. And more.
In fact, we thought our dogs were just about perfect. Then I went to San Diego and met Breezy.
Breezy is my mother’s dog. A full-blooded, champion-sired standard poodle. She’s absolutely stunning, with a strawberry blond coat and the brightest eyes I’ve ever seen on a dog. And she’s smart. Not just smart. Brilliant. As is my mom. They’re a perfect match.
My mother has raised Breezy to be a service dog and trained her to perform a host of tasks and trick. Tasks and tricks Breezy obeys on command. Every time.
For example, Breezy will sit. And not just sit… Mom can stick out her hand and say, “Breezy, give me five!” and she’ll smack Mom’s hand with one paw.
And she’ll fetch.
Not just fetch… Mom can say, “Breezy, get my shoes,” and down the hall and into the bedroom Breezy runs. She grabs one of Mom’s shoes from the closet, runs it out to her, then returns to the bedroom to bring out its partner.
Mom can say, “Breezy, find my keys,” and Breezy runs around the house searching the floor and tables and counter tops for Mom’s keys. She won’t stop until she’s finds them and drops them in Mom’s lap.
Mom can say, “Breezy, bring my glasses,” and off she goes, returning with the specs gently held in her mouth.
If Mom drops money, bills, Breezy rounds them up and mouths them to her.
If Mom wants to head out to shop or visit friends or wants to call it a night and go to bed, she can say, “Breezy, go potty,” and Breezy runs to the designated potty spot and goes potty. If she doesn’t have to go, she’ll squat anyway. She’s amazingly willing, that dog.
One of her newest tricks: If Mom sneezes, “Atchoo!,” Breezy runs over to the Kleenex box beside Mom’s favorite chair, snatches a tissue, and runs it back to her.
One afternoon during the few days when Breezy was learning the trick, Mom was reading a magazine and snacking on cheese. The same kind of cheese she uses to reward Breezy for performing on command. Just as she finished her snack, she looked beside her and there was Breezy, her mouth crammed with tissues!
It took another day or two before Breezy realized the prompt was “Atchoo!” and not pieces of cheese.
Since Breezy is a certified service dog and sports a bright orange vest in public, she’s allowed to accompany Mom inside grocery stores and cafes. As a way of saying thank you to the good folks working in the stores, Mom has taught Breezy to say ‘good-bye.’ On command, Breezy sits down, stretches a foreleg straight up in the air and waves her paw “good-bye.” It’s the cutest trick I’ve ever seen!
When I got back from San Diego, I called Bert to tell her all about my trip west. Blink and Snippet were sound asleep in the room with me. Nikita was scratching in the hall, his elbow bang-bang-banging on the floor. Bert’s dogs were curled up on her end. I told her all about Mom and Breezy. We fell silent and thought about our dogs and about who did what for whom.
Finally, Bert said, “I think we’re doing something wrong.”