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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Duke


I was 20 and in college when our family's 15 year-old cat died. With my sister in New York and my parents both working, he'd been a lap-sitting companion for my grandmother. She didn't want another cat; she'd been too close to Smokey (or Mudie, in Yiddish). During the next summer, we saw an ad in the local paper for puppies - $5 each.

My father and I drove to see the litter of six. They were a mix of German shepherd and Tennessee black and tan
coonhound. No getting around it, they were cute. But aren't all puppies. We brought back two, one whose hair was predominantly black (with brown eyebrows and muzzle), one whose hair was predominantly brown. At the time, I was reading the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; we named them Holmes and Watson. Getting the puppies was a huge mistake in so many ways. They were too high-energy for my grandmother; as they grew larger they got way too big to sit on her lap; and, over time, the neighborhood changed dramatically. I can't remember whether I was still in college or at my first job, but a few years later the dogs were poisoned in my family's back yard. One died quickly; the other went blind.

I never had another dog. Living in apartments and then a small townhouse. In Laramie, we were surrounded by labs. Now that we're in the Idaho countryside, I sometime think I'd like to get a dog.

Years ago, when we were living in Maryland, a guy who worked for me had his own little menagerie. Two ferrets, a Gordon setter, and two Brittany spaniels. The Gordon was something of a glamour queen; beautiful, and she knew it. The Brits were more like the girls next door, pretty and lively, with a great sense of humor. One day I went to see them at a field exercise and thought, "If I get a dog, it will be a Brit." Maybe someday.

One of our neighbors is a carpenter by trade, and when he's out of town on a job he asks Kerry and me to take care of his critters - Hootie, a big (actually, overweight) black cat with yellow eyes; and Duke, an Australian shepherd. Duke's got a lot going for him (though he's also a bit stocky). He loves people. He loves to play. And when he first sees you, his pointed ears stand up and actually cross.

Duke's favorite game is "chase the ball." After a few nights, I threw out my right shoulder - and then discovered the Chase-it! The combination of a tennis ball and Chase-it is right up there with the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter. It's kind of like an Australian woomera for dogs, just replace the spear with a yellow Big R tennis ball. Takes the strain off the shoulder, elbow and wrist.

After missing his "dad" all day, Duke relishes our visits. He'll jump up and down, and run into the meadow to play "chase the ball." There's a joy in Duke that reminds me of John Belushi in "Animal House." Always something to do. Somthing fun. After about 10 minutes, it's time for a cooling dunk in the pond (he takes the ball in with him so I can't play without him. Then, another 10 minutes, until it's time for us to go home. Duke will dig a shallow hole in which he rests the ball until the next day, and sits on his side of the invisible electric fence, watching us go.

Would a Brittany spaniel be as much fun? I don't know. Maybe I'll get a dog, maybe not. But at least I have Duke to play with now and then.

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