Sunday, April 13, 2014

Good Old Dog Days

How often do you hear people say, “I sure miss the good old days?” I sometimes wonder if dogs feel the same way.

I refer you to an article in the Sunday New York Times by David Hochman, titled “You’ll Go Far, My Pet.” In it, he talks about how much more complicated canine lives have become since the “Alpo era.” (Page 1 and 12of the Sunday Styles section)

If you ask me, it’s because there are so many expectations placed on doggies nowadays. Their play dates are organized. They go to dog parks to meet their pals. They need to behave well in public and get their parents (nobody says “owner” anymore, as the article points out) to pick up poop after them. They have to stay on leash when they’re out on walks with their humans. Some of them get their Canine Good Citizen certificates (Riley did.) A few go into beauty contests and dream about winning “Best in Show.” Others guide persons with disabilities, rescue lost souls or sniff out contraband salami at the airport. Some are elite athletes participating in sports such as Fly Ball, Agility and Long Dive. You often see well-groomed pups working as greeters in small shops.

So is it any wonder that Riley and I are feeling the pressure to make him a better-rounded bow-wow? To that end we are currently enrolled in an Animal Therapy Assistance training program.  I figured he looked bored in spite of his three walks a day and his two days a week at day care. The vet said he thinks Riley suffers from low self-esteem and needs to do something meaningful that might boost his confidence. He needs to make a contribution to society.

I’m not sure how he feels about it. He seems excited enough when I show him his special bandanna that he wears only when he’s going to class. It will become his signal later on that he is “going to work.” Riley is breezing through his lessons. As for me, I’m a nervous wreck! This stuff is hard!

And so I am wondering, is it really necessary for a dog to be gainfully employed? They didn’t generally have jobs when I was a kid.

Our family had a Cocker Spaniel named Sandy who, like all dogs in the 1950s, roamed free in our neighborhood, teaming up with his rag-tag posse of pound pups. They led a simple life of leisure. They spent the day snuffling around garbage cans and chasing squirrels and avoiding that bully Butchie that lived up our street. He’d ambush us kids from out of the shrubbery in front of his house and snap at our ankles as we peddled past his house on our bikes as fast as we could. He was a mean mutt to be avoided by kids and dogs.

Mind you, there was a downside to being a free agent. Sandy had two car accidents in his lifetime, one of which caused him to lose an eye. He was thereafter our cock-eyed Cocker.

In the good old days, dogs pooped wherever they liked. Not a day went by when some kid wouldn’t go home having “stepped in it.” Our moms used sticks to scrape it off our shoes. Butchie used to come over to our house to crap on our front lawn, and my mother would pound on the window and yell at him, “You get out of here, you BRUTE, Butchie!” and run out to chase him away, swearing that he was coming over to our house just because he knew it made her boiling mad.

Sandy, for his part, was a casual customer, as my mom used to say. He was pretty much untrained to do anything, except my dad had taught him to wait with a biscuit on his nose before he was allowed to snap it up. And he did shake a paw. But obedience commands were not in his repertoire and so he could be spotted trotting happily  along, sniffing the ground way up the street while my mother called him and called him and called him to come home so she could get going to her hair appointment or UCW meeting. She’d storm back into the house, muttering, “That damn dog! He does this on purpose!” Her only swear word and she reserved it for our guileless pooch.

Sandy slept in the basement on one of my dad’s old jackets. They gave him his can of Dr. Ballard’s food splorted out onto a piece of wax paper set down on the floor. I don’t remember him having any toys.  He certainly didn’t get walkies. Maybe he visited the vet once a year. He was just a dog

Sandy did have one heroic moment that I know about. He saved me from a cat. My mother used to tell the story about leaving the infant me outside in my carriage near the front steps, which in those days was considered good parenting because a kid needed to get some fresh air. Sandy was asleep nearby on the porch. His sudden and furious barking got my mom running to the front door in time to shoo away a menacing cat. Folk lore of the day had it that cats sat on unsuspecting babies in their cribs and carriages suffocating the life out of them. My mother wasn’t going to take a chance that this was just an old wives’ tale. In her view, Sandy had saved my life.

As for Riley, his moment of heroism is yet to come. Maybe he’ll bring some joy to an Alzheimer’s patient or an autistic child; to a lonely senior citizen or a kid having trouble reading. We’ll see. Our final exam is in four weeks. I’m thinking I might get myself a special bandanna, just to signal that we are going to class to help Riley realize his full potential…as a dog.