ONE THING AMONG MANY THAT I LIKE ABOUT KEITH CARTER’S superb dog photographs, potent and funny and sad, always loving and wise, is that they are mainly concerned with reasonably full-sized dogs, which to me (and I suspect to Carter as well) means real dogs. In awareness that such a statement will elevate numerous hackles among readers of these lines, I will add that during my life I have owned my share of smaller canines—feists, Scotties, dachshunds, and the like—and have managed to cherish every one of them. If I last long enough, I may well own another one or two such, for a reason to be noted later. But during my middle and older years, large dogs have been a main dimension of existence for myself and my wife and children, living as we do full-time in the country and having to cope with livestock and varmints and rattlesnakes and occasional undesirable strangers. They possess a seriousness that stems from the varying instinctive functions built into them through ages of selective breeding and from long and useful association with people. They have presence.
Yes, I’ve had or known some quite serious and functional smaller dogs and have known some big ones that never grew up, remaining puppyish clowns all their lives. In truth, my favorite of all the dogs I’ve owned, a half-breed Australian blue heeler named with great originality Blue, was a bit of a clown himself, though serious enough when seriousness was called for. And his mother, Pan, a swift, aggressive, brindle-and-white Basque herding dog out of Idaho, was serious to the point of being dangerous at times. I have written at length about them elsewhere, and about the self-willed, foul-tempered, and beloved dachshund called Watty who did as much as he could to subvert their good behavior before he died.
Neither Pan nor Blue developed into a true, seasoned herding dog of the sort owned by real stockmen who handle, more or less constantly, throngs of goats or sheep or cattle. In fact, Pan at last quit herding entirely after I came down too hard on her errors. But Blue was often a help, and sometimes a hindrance, and when being either was always serious about the work for which he had been born. Very often he was also comic relief.
Equally serious were the two amiable, shaggy, gray-and-white Old English sheepdogs that succeeded Pan and Blue—Hup and, after him, Hodge, sire and son—though it took me a long while to understand their ways. What I finally figured out was that, unlike Pan and Blue, they were what the British (and other people too, I guess) call headers, whose instinct is to get out in front of whatever beasts are being worked and bring them back toward their master. This led to some interesting episodes, further comic relief if you like, as once when I was driving about fifteen of a neighbor’s trespassing large hogs toward a gate, cracking a whip to keep the stubborn fat bastards moving, and whenever they bunched and started trotting in the right direction, Hup’s header genes would clash into gear and make him run around in front of them and bark fiercely in their faces, creating chaos.
Strangely for dogs bred to herd, both father and son had sensitive noses and a strong retrieving instinct. I was still hunting doves and quail and sometimes ducks back then, and I never lost a downed bird when either of them was with me. Hup, who lasted only until he was six (there was show-breeding in his bloodline, with inherited systemic ï¿½aws), was especially good at this. He was “soft-mouthed,” never mangling the quarry, and once in an unharvested, disheveled autumn wheat field swarming with doves I watched him find, pick up, and bring to hand every single bird killed by six competent shooters during two or three hours, glorying in it.
Son Hodge, on the other hand, though he loved retrieving above all other tasks, was wont to chomp down hard on birds and proudly deposit at one’s feet a tattered, useless rag of feathers and gnawed ï¿½esh. This habit was bad enough that I quit taking him along if hunting with friends, using him only when I went afield by myself, and not always then. After many harsh scoldings over time, he began to improve a bit, though the message that finally reached him was somewhat garbled in form. The last year I hunted with him, when he was ten or so and getting arthritic, he would limp out and find shot doves and simply stand over them, avoiding reprimand by never touching them with his mouth. I believe he saw the humor in this, for it meant that his almost equally arthritic master had to do a hell of a lot of trudging to pick the birds up, but said arthritic master lost nary a one of them.
Old Hodge died last year at thirteen, leaving me without any dog at all, or any prospect of one, for the first time in forty years. I miss him sorely and miss the others that came before him, with their individual quirks and charms and the unreasoning, absolute loyalty they gave. (Miss them? They are ghosts that are with me always, and I can call up the face and eyes and habitual expression of any one of the lot at will as easily as I can recall the features of departed friends.) But I don’t believe I’m ready to take on responsibility for another dog at this point, or maybe ever again. Herdless these days, we lease our pastures for grazing and own no goats or chickens or other small creatures that need defense against varmints. Even our children, protected over the years by such dogs, have long since grown up and gone away.
All of which leaves little function for a serious dog to fulfill. Furthermore, we now often take off on extended trips, usually to fishing waters, and a sizable country dog is miserable during days in a car or leashed and walked at motels. Nor have I ever seen it as entirely fair—though we’ve done it on occasion—to stash such a rustic and free-ranging friend in a boarding kennel with pens, however clean and well run it may be.
A little dog, then; what about that? Well, maybe in time, because I am finding that utter doglessness is a truly diminished way of life, at least for the likes of me. But for yet a short while longer, I think that I’ll make out with my full-sized ghosts.