Probably no one man should have as many dogs in his life as I have had, but there was more pleasure than distress in them for me except in the case of an Airedale named Muggs. He gave me more trouble than all the other fifty-four or -five put together, although my moment of keenest embarrassment was the time a Scotch terrier named Jeannie, who had just had six puppies in the clothes closet of a fourth floor apartment in New York, had the unexpected seventh and last at the corner of Eleventh Street and Fifth Avenue during a walk she had insisted on taking.
~ James Thurber, “The Dog That Bit People”
The Muggs James Thurber references was a “big, burly, choleric” Airedale who acted as if Thurber wasn’t one of the family. “There was a slight advantage in being one of the family, for he didn’t bite the family as often as he bit strangers.” Over the years, he bit everyone but Thurber’s mother, “and he made a pass at her once but missed.” Mrs. Thurber felt sorry for Muggs and often said, “He’s not strong.” Thurber says, ” [B]ut that was inaccurate; he may not have been well but he was terribly strong.” He was also sorry after he bit someone, she said, but Thurber observed he didn’t act sorry either. Mrs. Thurber’s philosophy was, “If you didn’t think he would bite you, he wouldn’t,” but the ice man didn’t buy it. “Once when Muggs bit Mrs. Rufus Sturtevant and again when he bit Lieutenant-Governor Malloy” she told the cops “that it hadn’t been Muggs’ fault but the fault of the people who were bitten. ‘When he starts for them, they scream,’ she explained, ‘and that excites him.'” The time he emerged from under the couch and bit elderly Mrs. Detweiler, Mrs. Thurber said it was just a bruise and, “He just bumped you,” but “Mrs. Detweiler left the house in a nasty state of mind.”
I met Muggs and got to know him intimately (practice, practice, practice) for a high school prose reading competition, and I’ve loved him ever since.
Well, enough. If you want to read the story, here’s the link, but I hope you’ll wait till I’ve told you about my dogs.
First came Stinky, when I was about three years old. He was a rat terrier. My dad had tied a rope to the handle of my little red wagon so he wouldn’t have to bend double when he pulled me around in it. Stinky watched, and, intelligent dog that he was, often took hold of the rope and replaced my dad at the helm. He also took the helm when I wasn’t in the wagon; on hot, moonlit summer nights, through their open bedroom windows, my parents heard him pulling the wagon around the back yard. I don’t remember it, but I was told that one day I ran into the house crying as if my heart would break and said, “I hit Stinky.” I know what happened–I had invited him to jump up on me, and he did, but pretty soon I’d had enough and he hadn’t, and I hit him to get him to back off. My heart was breaking, and over sixty years later, I still get teary when I think of it. I’m always sorry after I’ve someone. Except for my friend Phyllis, but that’s a story for another time. H, perhaps, for hit.
My mother brought home Ruffy, a Border Collie-Shepherd mix, when he was only four weeks old. The giver insisted that was old enough. It wasn’t. The acquisition of a second dog surprised my father, who, I presume, thought it should be a family decision (even at that age I was surprised they didn’t discuss it, but I suppose Mother thought a 2/3 majority was enough), but he didn’t say anything, simply set his jaw in the same way he did the summer before my senior year of college when I said I was going to drop out and go to work for the IRS. I stayed in college and got my degree, but if I hadn’t, I’d have been spared a lot of school-teacher grief and would now have federal employee health insurance, which is a super deal.
(My dad played ball with all our dogs when he thought no one was looking.)
Except for a white bib and little brown “eyebrows,” Ruffy was all black, even his eyes; his hair was thick and wavy. His official name was Rough Bones, which shows why you should never ask a pre-schooler what she wants to name a pet. We gave our dogs bones from steaks and roasts, and they gnawed on and then hid them in the lush St. Augustine grass, and I stepped on them with my perpetually bare feet and cried out in pain. Two or three times a day. At four weeks, Ruffy wasn’t yet weaned, so Mother had to feed him warm milk mixed with white Karo syrup from little doll bottles I’d gotten for Christmas. At first I woke for the four a.m. feeding–yip yip yip–but soon stopped hearing his call and slept through it.
As a young adult, Ruffy, who spent most of his time confined to a big back yard plus the adjoining quarter-acre of chicken yard that lay on the other side of the driveway, chased a twelve-year-old neighbor boy who was passing the house, and ran another one up onto the porch across the street. The stiff, heavy pocket of his new jeans saved the second one from puncture wounds. After that occurrence, we confined the dog for ten days, the time prescribed for making sure he didn’t have rabies (he’d been vaccinated).
My parents took his behavior seriously but my mom noted that both boys teased him through the hog wire fence every time they walked down the street. She believed the dog considered himself provoked; she definitely considered him provoked. (She’d told the boys to stop teasing him, to no avail.)
However, when some of Mother’s out-of-town relatives couldn’t rouse anyone at the front door and offered to enter the back yard through the picket gate, Ruffy told them in no uncertain terms not to bother. We decided he was being a conscientious, if overzealous, watch dog. We weren’t home when they came and so couldn’t call him off. Considering these particular relatives, I thought he’d been provoked.
(When it came to me, my parents always gave the dog the benefit of the doubt. “You know Sabre snaps when you pet him; leave him alone.” Sabre, my cousins’ Cocker Spaniel, didn’t often see me, and didn’t like me bothering him (probably didn’t like me at all), and he did snap, and I knew he would snap, but he was a dog and I couldn’t help myself. I saw a dog, I petted the dog. When common sense set in, about the time I was forty, I learned restraint.)
The situation with Ruffy became clear, unfortunately, the evening we had a yard full of other relatives sitting in lawn chairs and eight-year-old Sharan appeared from down the street. While she was standing in the middle of the family circle, Ruffy walked up, in my mother’s words, “smiling, with his tongue lolling out and his tail wagging,” and bit her on the thigh.
I was in the house and didn’t see him bite. When they told me they had to take Ruffy to Dr. Matthews to be watched for ten days, and then Dr. Matthews would find him another home, I cried so hard they gave me a St. Joseph’s (baby) aspirin and put me to bed. The aspirin didn’t help. Dr. Matthews told my parents Ruffy was too good a dog to put down, and he would give him to some rancher living out in the country, away from little girl visitors. I was sad but understood. Later Dr. Matthews told them that when the ranchers he offered Ruffy to learned he’d bitten someone, they declined to take him, and so . . . It was years before I realized what had happened to him. I asked and was told the whole story.
We later learned that Smoky, a litter mate owned by another family in town, also bit. They were both sweet, beautiful dogs, good playmates for their children, and we wondered if there was something in the genes that prompted them to bite strangers. Probably not.
I have pictures of Stinky and Ruffy, but they’re not, shall we say, accessible, so I can’t post them. The dogs pictured here don’t do them justice.
So. I’ve expended all these words on two dogs. Like Thurber, I’ve probably had more dogs than one person should have, but I’ll have to write about the rest of them later, perhaps for M, as in More Dogs.
Okay. Go read “The Dog That Bit People.” You’ll be glad you did.
*D is also for Dogs.
I wish I could post pictures of Muggs, but I’m sure they’re under copyright. However, the two links in the second paragraph take you to Thurber’s sketches of him.
Image of James Thurber by Fred Palumbo, via Wikipedia. Public domain.