We have three dogs now. Bear and Daisy Mae are Australian Shepherds, which is clearly a fine and sensible name for a dog that was conceived of, bred, and perfected entirely on working ranches in the American West, a stock dog as archetypically American as the cowboy, the quarter horse, and the Colt single-action.
The American Kennel Club claims the breed goes back, genetically, to the Basque region of the Pyrenean Mountains, and that it owes its name to the Basque shepherds who came to America from Australia in the 1800’s. I suppose that’s possible—anything is possible—but I prefer to think it was a bunch of good-natured but mischievous cowboys sitting around a campfire with a bottle of Jack Daniels and talking about how ignorant city slickers are. “Hell, those New York City folks can’t tell a horse from a cow from an elk. Why, I bet we could even tell them Ol’ Blue here is an Australian dog and they’d by golly buy that.” Think Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, and Daniel Stern, amiable, gullible, out of their element and out of their league, but having a fine old time with some fine old cowboys spreading misinformation.
However it happened, the Australian shepherd couldn’t be more American. He is a firm and unwavering believer in the Constitution, and in the equal and separate balance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. He believes in baseball and apple pie or any other foodstuff, whether in his food bowl or fallen to the floor, and he especially believes in the rights of all American citizens to do or be or say or go where they choose, so long as he can herd them in the right direction.
Their most obvious attribute—their great beauty—is the attribute most dangerous to them. People take one look at Aussies and fall in love, and this is emphatically not a breed for everyone. They were bred to move stock over long distances in rough country all day long, and sitting around on the sofa watching Animal Planet is not going to satisfy their physical energy demands. Nor will it satisfy their intellectual demands, because this is a highly intelligent breed that needs and wants and demands a job, preferably a challenging job. If you don’t interact with your Aussie both intellectually and physically, you and the dog will both end up very, very unhappy.
That beautiful coat also sheds constantly. If you share your home with an Aussie, dog hair will become an ever changing but constant feature in every corner, on every piece of furniture, under every piece of furniture, on all your clothes, and as a condiment on the dining table competing for space with the salt and the pepper and the mustard.
Temperamentally, Aussies are pretty easy-going as long as you work them and stimulate their brains. They are very sensitive dogs who need a light touch and, in the first two years, a lot—a lot—of patience. Their formidable brain power simply does not kick in until they reach about two years of age, and until then they can be what is politely referred to as a challenging handful. I imagine my parents thought very much the same about me, if you add about twenty years or so to that two years of age. Darleen claims my pre-frontal cortex still hasn’t fully developed, but then she’s a wife, and what wife doesn’t consider her husband a challenging handful?
Another Aussie trait is that they crave, desire, demand, and need close, very close contact with their people. If your idea of a dog is as a piece of yard art, do me a favor and don’t get any living, sentient thing; just buy a pet rock. But above all, do not get an Aussie, because that will truly ruin the dog and will ruin him in a slow, sadistic way. In fact, don’t even think about getting an Australian shepherd unless you really like having a dog underfoot. Correction: make that on top of foot. Both our Aussies, but Bear especially, will lie on top of your feet the instant said feet stop moving. I have learned to gather everything I might possibly need before I sit down to eat, work, read, watch television, or anything else, because both feet will instantly be glued in place by Australian Shepherd Superglue, and getting them out from under him can be painful to my toes and to his feelings. I’ve also learned that if my feet are under the toe-kick of the kitchen sink, or under the bathroom sink where I shave, I have to look behind me and move cautiously if I don’t want to trip and go ass over teakettle, because he’ll be right there. When I do sit in the easy chair to watch television, he puts his front half in my lap—he knows he’s too big to get all of him up there—and he will stay indefinitely.
His chief eccentricity, however, is very endearing. He likes to walk up to me and thrust his head firmly between my legs, leaving only his ears visible and touchable. That’s because he loves having his ears rubbed and as long as I continue to rub, he will continue to stand. Or until he hears dinner being prepared.
Bear’s raison d’être is to keep this world safe from birds. If I turn him loose in any pasture, or take him to the dog park, he will spend his time chasing every bird he can find. It’s his calling, and he takes his duties very seriously.
On one memorable occasion, at the local dog park, a raven decided to play with him. Bear got the raven airborne, no troubles there, but the raven simply settled on a nearby fence post. Bear would duly charge said fence post and the raven would fly to the second one down, or the third one back the other way, or sometimes just far enough away to give Bear a false sense of security. Then the raven would call or flap its wings to get Bear’s attention and off they would go again. For a while, both of them were clearly having a fine old time, but I finally had to call Bear off; he was starting to trip on his tongue, and you don’t want to discourage a dog with a good and useful habit of chasing birds. Useful? Yes, because for my retirement, I’m considering renting him out as one of those dogs that keep birds off airport runways.
I’m not as knowledgeable about canine anatomy as I should be, so I’m not sure how the mouth is connected to the legs, but Daisy Mae is one of those dogs incapable of forward movement without something in her mouth. In Daisy Mae’s case, it’s almost always a Nylabone, held at a jaunty angle in one corner so that she looks for all the world as if she were smoking a stogie. She is much more frivolous and light-hearted than Bear and she smiles constantly, so between that and the stogie, she reminds me of a much prettier version of George Burns.
She likes to have her tummy rubbed, so she runs at you and at the last moment leaps into the air, turns sideways onto her back, and falls with a crash onto the floor where she will gaze up at you in a manner that no man of woman born can possibly refuse. She has one brown eye and one blue eye, and either one of them could melt the heart of a brass statue of the devil himself. In short, she has charm and she knows how to work it.
Other than being charming, Daisy’s only other accomplishment of any note is herding the cats. Since “herding cats” is a metaphor for an impossible act, this is not an accomplishment to be sneered at. Unfortunately, the people Daisy shares her life with aren’t quite smart enough to figure out how to make cat-herding into a productive source of revenue, so Daisy retains strictly amateur status. Just as well, since she is only a year old and still in the prolonged impossible stage of all Australian shepherd puppies, but we have high hopes for her as she matures into professional cat herding.
Daisy’s has a serious bark like a Black & Decker masonry drill going into your skull, but she has an endearing way of greeting strangers by woofing at them. This is not barking, but—quite literally—well, woofing, a sort of quiet series of little grunts intended to indicate openness to friendly overtures, but no intention of tolerating unwanted liberties. Aussies are generally good-natured and people-loving, but they can be protective if not properly socialized.
Aussies hold it as a basic tenet of faith that they are, in fact, human beings with fur, and in this they are not far off the mark. It’s an endearing trait, but it means that they have a pronounced tendency to stand up on their hind legs. Think about every YouTube video you’ve ever seen featuring circus dogs, or dogs competing in dance competitions; there is a reason why so many of those dogs are Aussies. It also means that while you might be able to teach them not to jump up on you (be gentle and patient; you’re trying to break a normal—from the Aussie’s point of view—behavioral pattern) they will still be prone to stand up on everybody else, to lean against the kitchen counter to see what’s cooking or to request a nibble, to put their paws on the bathroom sink to supervise your shaving, and in general, act like an amiable and sociable old friend next to you at the bar. “Hey, it’s great to see you again! Let’s have a beer. How do you think Green Bay’s going to do this year?”
Basically, both our Australian shepherds are perfectly normal dogs. Not so the third member of our family.
Lola is a Cardigan Welsh corgi. In case you are unfamiliar with that breed, the Cardigan is the other corgi, the one with the tail. The Queen of England’s corgis, the ones seen on television clustering around the queen in her garden at Buckingham palace, are the smaller, tail-less variety known as Pembroke Welsh corgis. We rescued one of those once, long ago, and I can testify that Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is well-protected. I got into a fistfight with a pit-bull who objected to us taking up space on his planet, and our other dogs, including a German shepherd from imported police and Schutzhund lines, all ran for their lives, while that little corgi managed to pull her head out of her collar, escaping from Darleen, and hit the pit-bull amidships like an express train. Of course, given her size, it had about as much effect as I would if I hit Deontay Wilder, but it distracted the pit-bull long enough for me to get back on my feet and grab him by his hind legs, incapacitating him until his owners could take him.
Cardigan Welsh corgis are supposed to be much tougher than Pembrokes. Having been owned by some of both, I can state empirically that the answer is an absolutely clear-cut yes and no. We had one very sweet and loving, but hopelessly fearful and neurotic Cardigan who used to fall apart at the slightest provocation, anything from turning on the shower to turning on the vacuum cleaner, from the faint and distant sound of far off neighbors quail hunting in a canyon a mile away from our house, to the unexpected sound of voices at our other neighbor’s house. She was a semi-rescue, but fearfulness, like aggression, is usually a sign of bad breeding.
Lola is the other extreme. Not only is she not afraid of the devil himself, but she has the kind of foolhardy courage that makes her a danger to herself. She is very prone to swaggering up to dogs that outweigh her by a factor of five, rolling up her sleeves as she goes, smacking her rolling pin against her open palm, snarling threats of violence and unwarranted comments about the other dog’s mother. She never actually does anything once she gets to the other dog, in fact she’s usually happy to play, but the menacing march up to them is someday going to inspire some dog to get his retaliation in first.
That’s with strange dogs. With strange people she responds as if each individual were her one true long-lost love, the single person she has pined to see all her life, the person she should always have lived with in any right-thinking world. “Who’s who? Oh, you mean that guy on the other end of the leash? He’s nobody, don’t worry about him. I just let him tag along with me because I feel sorry for the poor schmoo. Kiss me again.”
Her real eccentricity, however, is that she curses like a drunken sailor trying to find the red-light district. Constantly, almost nonstop. She wanders around the house, cursing under her breath and threatening anyone and everyone who comes anywhere near her even when she wants them to come near her. It’s a little hard to take this coprolalia (compulsive swearing) seriously because she does it so incessantly. When Daisy Mae helps Lola with her morning toilette, licking her eyes and ears for her, Lola issues a steady stream of hair-raising threats and obscenities that make you think she is about to pull a razor out of her garter belt. And when Lola returns the favor and grooms Daisy Mae’s eyes and ears, which she does daily because, like everyone else, she adores Daisy, the same bloody and vicious torrent of curses and threats pours out. If I pick Lola up to put her on the bed (her body is not designed for jumping up onto or down from anything higher than a bathmat) I am rewarded with promises to tear me limb from limb. If Darleen leans down to give her a kiss, Lola threatens to rip her lips off. When Darleen starts to prepare the dogs’ dinner, the threats and curses reach such a crescendo we’re always afraid the neighbors will call the police. Of course, Lola would greet the police with ecstasies of wriggling, jumping up on their uniforms, kissing them, and generally acting like her namesake in Damn Yankees: “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, and little man, Lola wants you!” Of course, Gwen Verdun’s dance as she sang that song was somewhat more enticing than the gyrations of a dog built upon the lines of an overstuffed kielbasa, but at least she stops swearing when greeting strangers.
The funny thing about the swearing is that it is accompanied by steady, cheerful wagging of her tail, a sort of split personality division of canine, as if the front end were full of psychopathic danger and the back end full of Christian charity and goodwill. It can also be a little sad to see, because no one, not even the cats, takes her threats seriously. To watch the cats rub up against her as she mutters imprecations is to see the definition of hollow and meaningless posturing. She really is quite the most eccentric dog I have ever known.
She also has the most acute hearing of any dog I have ever known.
I was sitting on the sofa with Lola, one cold winter’s day, procrastinating after lunch instead of going out to do chores. I was procrastinating so successfully that I was just beginning to doze off when suddenly her ears flipped up from sleep mode (think Yoda in Star Wars) to alert mode. Then her head came up and she stared intently out the sliding glass door. She has learned to alert me when there are ground squirrels on the back hill. Ground squirrels are a very destructive pest and they harbor the flea that carries bubonic plague, so when they move in near the house, Lola tells me and I go shoot them. It’s a division of labor satisfactory to all except the ground squirrels, and their needs and wants are antithetical to mine. But Lola always runs to the sliding door when the ground squirrels are there, and this time she stayed where she was, her whole body tense with anticipation, muttering softly to herself.
Thinking we might be under attack by North Korea, I got up and peered out the door, cupping my hands against the glass. Nothing. There are a lot of trees and a lot of brush on the slope behind the house, so I took my time methodically scanning the hill. Nothing. Finally, I noticed Lola staring to the southwest and I looked over that way. Still nothing, but just as I started to turn away, on the far edge where the hill folds down into a culvert, a little buck’s head appeared, then his body, as he walked up into view. That deer was easily a hundred feet or more from the house, the house itself was buttoned up tight against the cold, and yet somehow, she had either heard or smelled or sensed that little guy. How? I have no explanation.
In theory, if you need a watch dog—and who doesn’t need a watch dog in these troubled times—a Cardigan would seem to be an ideal choice, but… But be prepared. Lola frequently alerts us to dangers that exist entirely in her own mind, as well as to actual things that don’t qualify as dangers to anyone but her. Getting our propane tank filled, for example, is something I like, I want, I need, I encourage, but Lola regards the propane guy as right up there with a Mexican drug cartel. The first time we spent the night in a hotel with her, we did not sleep, at all, because Lola evidently regarded the hotel as our new house and alerted us to every single person who walked down the hall or opened a door or closed a door or… We finally had to lock her in the bathroom with the exhaust fan on to deaden her ability to hear, but by then the sandman had gotten bored with waiting for us and had moved on to more receptive climes. In short, if you want a watchdog, be careful what you wish for.
Her other great skill (other, I mean, than barking at dangers real or imagined) is agility. Oh, stop laughing. I know she doesn’t look like an agility dog, but she has a real genius for it. She learned the obstacles with lightning speed, and can go through a course with something pretty darned close to lightning speed, or at least what passes for lightning speed from a kielbasa. The only real drawback she has is that she adores our local professional agility trainer and will frequently take time out in the middle of a run to go jump up and bestow kisses, and then go right back to where she left off as if nothing untoward had ever happened. This usually causes Darleen, who runs her, to get absolutely hysterical, and it’s hard to run while you’re laughing.
She really is the most eccentric animal I have ever known.