Living in Dog Years
Radish wandered through his life like the featured guest at a state banquet. By Bill Vaughn
Part One. Spying from my hammock as Radish dragged home the spine of a winterkilled whitetail he’d scavenged in the forest, I realized that I had developed a bad case of professional jealousy. The truth is, my thirteen-year-old red heeler was far better at what he did than I am at what I do. While I was missing the boat, buying high and selling low, tuning right when I should have been turning left, Radish joyously organized his days so that they passed before him like gleaming cans of Alpo on an endless conveyor belt.
Because he was a monument to the simple life naturally lived, I decided to study him as if he were one of those get-ahead books, Ten Habits of the Super Successful, say, or Twelve Steps to the New You.
The next morning I wandered from the bedroom to find him sprawled on the living room couch with Clara, our elegant little Border collie. On the other couch were three of their pals from the neighborhood. Here was Cricket, an Australian Shepard with one blue eye and one brown, an expensive corgi of the Cardigan variety named Mr. Rogers, and a sweet-tempered pit bull named Big Head Todd.
These high breeds sometimes spent the night whenever Radish allowed them through the dog door. They had about them the contemplative emotional weather of people who had just settled onto their beach blankets with a bestseller and a cold one. Kitty, ushered out the neighbors so the home dogs could eat their breakfasts of chicken and rice bran. And then our summer day began.
Radish trotted down the hill behind the house to the Mabel for a drink and the first of his many swims. Next stop was the corrals, where Kitty was feeding the horses. Radish made a beeline for Mokie, a mare Kitty’s family has owned for all of the horse’s thirty-five-years. His obsession with this geriatric wonder was based on the fact that because her teeth had been ground to stubs much of the meal she chewed dribbled from her mouth and fell to the ground.
After grazing on horse feed, Radish sampled next a nice fresh horse turd, a delicacy no dog can seem to resist, rendering the phrase “shit-eating dog” redundant. Whether he liked the texture of it or he sought the undigested grain in this offal, he was so fond of a little taste every day that in the winter he smuggled in frozen hunks of it, dropping them on the hearth to thaw.
When he was finished at the corrals I followed as he headed across our front field, under the wood-rail fence, and out into the pastures of the Trout Meadows Ranch. When we first moved to Dark Acres Radish soon learned that the ranch hands fed these cattle every morning with milled oats. Because oats come under the heading of what Radish does for a living, he made these feedlots a mandatory stop on his daily roam before the ranch went to an all-hay diet.
But it wasn’t the memory of porridge that drove Radish on, it was grooming. Or maybe “image enhancement” would better describe the streak of green cow shit that he smeared across his cape as he rolled on his back in the muck, his legs waving languidly in the sweet mountain air. He jumped to his feet with a satisfied grunt and turned to admire the glorious mess he’d made of himself.
I walked him back down to the Mabel and heaved a stick into the water. He went after it like a shot, throwing himself off the bank and hitting so hard his belly flop spooked a pair of pheasants, who exploded from the brush with a stream of cuss words and a furious flurry of wings. When Clara heard the ruckus she streaked from the house, down the hill, and flung herself in the water as well, in order to wrestle Radish for the stick. They swam around each other in circles, growling, a dog fixed to each end of the stick, until Radish let her have what she wanted. It was his nature to live and let live. He’d only been in two fights—a blue heeler named Bingo tore his right ear, and Wilma, a neighbor’s calico, had jumped on his back and ridden him like a bronc.
Part Two. We got Radish from a cattle rancher named Jerry Hamel, whose spread is on the Flathead Indian Reservation. We trusted his estimation of animals. But when we drove north from Dark Acres up to look at the pup he was so fat and his legs so short I decided this blob couldn’t possibly be a heeler—that speedy and quick-witted working breed that everyone in the West who traffics in quarter horses simply must own to complete his self-conscious ensemble.
But Jerry assured me that this bag of butter was indeed a heeler; he was fat because his brother, Mouse, and he were the only pups in the litter. When we drove back to the rez a few weeks later Radish and Shine, his momma, were playing in an irrigation ditch. Before he could waddle off I snatched him up. While I sat with him in the truck and Kitty chatted with Hamel I noticed that the dog didn’t have a tail.
“Jerry!” I called, not knowing then that working dogs are often docked so there’s nothing to get in the way of the work. “Where’s his tail?
“Ho, you know Indians,” Hamel said. “We ate it.”
When Radish was clean he rolled in the grass, then suddenly began barking furiously at a pair of red-tailed hawks, who looked down from their gyres to see if this nuisance might be something good to eat.
Maybe this kind of projectile barking was a compensation for his ebbing powers—his hindquarters, for example, had begun showing the emaciation that strikes the males of all mammals, plus he’d developed a heart murmur. Or maybe the racket was just a new tactic he was employing in his ceaseless harvest of the world. But friends, this dog could bark! When it happened unexpectedly indoors your stunned eardrums hummed afterwards from the force of it. In the autumns Radish sat under our Goodland apple tree and barked heavenward until fatigued, nerve-rattled fruit just gave up and dropped from the branch.
He went back to the slough for a beverage, and then grazed on the tender tops of the broadgrass that carpets the banks between the cattails. After joining Clara and Mr. Rogers for a chase game in the back yard, he went for a nap to a special spot under a mountain laurel in our walled garden. An hour later, with temperatures pushing ninety, he padded into my office and ordered me to take him swimming in the river.
The instant I grabbed an inner tube from the elm where the tubes are stored, the dogs bolted before me down a path canopied by hawthorns, along a footbridge and loped across a parkland to the river. Without waiting for me, Clara flung herself from the bank, with Radish close behind, and they began paddling furiously for the opposite shore. Although the channel here is only a hundred yards wide, the flood swept us downstream twice that distance before we could beach ourselves on Radish Island. The dogs shook themselves and raced down the gravel to the lagoon we loved.
Although he was bred to work cattle, we had never trained Radish to do anything. In the mid-1990s, after I decided to finish some unfinished tasks, including my college degree and the requirements to become an Eagle Scout, I recruited Rollette Pruyn, our veterinarian, to administer the performance test for the Dog Care merit badge. When he asked me to put my animal through his paces Radish crawled under the horse trailer after I ordered him to stay, begun barking when I ordered him to sit, and peed on Pruyn’s truck when I yelled at him to fetch a stick.
“I’m going to pass you,” Pruyn said. “But only because you did good on the knowledge part. Maybe you should think about obedience school.”
Too late for that, I thought, shaking his hand. Radish came and went as he pleased, slept on the furniture, drank from the toilets, climbed on the tables to look for butter, and yapped like a hyena when I licked my plate because that also came under the heading of what he did for a living. Some people were horrified that I was raising a hippie, but I admired the liberties he took. They are the canine equivalents of what I would do if I had more courage—the complete 365-day year I would devote to nothing except learning Welsh, operating a still, and building a stone barn.
Uneducated as he was, however, Radish had always been a quick study. He immediately learned how to heal, how to use his dog door, and how to cajole what he wanted from horses without getting kicked. Because a FedEx driver gave him a biscuit in 1993 he began leaping into all delivery vans the moment they pulled up to the house, and loped across the pasture to the neighbor’s houses if a van stopped there instead of here. Since they knew that he would not exit their vehicles until he got a treat, the drivers of FedEx and UPS and Airborne Express all began carrying biscuits whenever they came this way.
His vocabulary included twenty-three words. When you told him to fetch the ball, he would not fetch a stick. When you told him to get the box, he would savagely tear apart any of the cardboard boxes I threw in the yard. When you ordered him to get the Mousy he brought forth a pink rubber toy he’d owned for three years, gnawing it only hard enough to make it squeak. And when you yelled Mouse! he knew that what you meant was not his mouse but mice at large. He killed scores of these vermin in the house and in the feed shed by quickly crushing their heads, but ate only one of them—the first one he killed, which made him nauseous.
Part Three. While we strolled among the purples willows to the head of the island, Radish disappeared, as he often did on these day trips, and didn’t join us until Kitty and I were reading in bed late that night. He jumped up between us, forcing Clara tomake room, and was asleep before I could say hello. I smelled his coat and rubbed it, trying to figure out where he’d been. Here was the faint astringency of the feral mint that grows in a briar patch not even the horses can penetrate. From his belly I plucked off a couple of beggar’s lice that told me he’d visited a thicket where he once dined on a the remains of a fool’s hen a fox had killed. And here on his hock was a dusting of wood ash that had clung there when he’d walked through a fire ring where we’d gathered in the snow around a Christmas bonfire.
But it wasn’t till he farted with a burlesque blat that I knew he’d been on the trail of something dead to eat. Whatever it was—beaver, duck, muskrat?—the reek of its by-product was sweet and putrid and combustible. Kitty turned away with a groan and shut off her lamp. And this is a person with allergies so pronounced that it takes an exceptional smell to get her attention.
The first time Radish farted loud enough for anyone to hear, he yelped and ran out the door. The next time it happened he turned and barked at his butt. And then he went through a period when these emissions woke him from his dreams with a start. But the last couple years he’d grown indifferent to even the most outrageous outburst, like the one that just escaped. I considered turning him from the family bed. But before I could summon the energy I fell asleep.
The slapping of the dog door woke me up. Kitty and Clara were sound asleep. I threw on some clothes and went out into the antiseptic light of a full moon. I heard the rattle of Radish’s tags as he trotted off, and decided to follow. Instead of heading back into the jungle he went to the river and dove in. Out on Radish Island, he trotted along a familiar game trail heading toward the lagoon. He stopped to dig. When I appeared before him, dripping, he looked up without surprise. Then he extracted the deer femur he’d buried. Compared to his usual fare, this tidbit wasn’t much to write home about. But what did I know?
I sat down in the sand as he gnawed and chewed.
For the first time in months I had spent most of an entire day in a state of serenity. When you make any effort to live the way a dog lives, especially a dog who dances with complete abandon from one impulse to another, the past evaporates and the future becomes nothing more than the next good thing. I must have been whispering, because Radish, bathed in moonlight and the perfumed and sultry air, turned his ear to listen. And then he winked.
One morning in February, when Radish turned away from his favorite nosh, I figured the banana must be tainted or the yogurt soured, and dumped it in the compost. But he wouldn’t eat a thing I offered. Not hamburger nor cheddar nor Asian pear. When he went to his dog bed the next day he couldn’t get up, or wouldn’t. It was as if he had entered the world at one end of a crowded banquet table, ate his way to the other end, and announced that it had all been very yummy, indeed, but he’d had his fill.
Since Christmas he’d been dwindling from congestive heart failure and a bum thyroid we were treating with drugs. And he had developed psychogenic polydipsia, a mental quirk that convinced him he was always thirsty. As he looked up at us with seamless trust, Kitty and I carried him, arms around his chest, from house to yard so he could do his business. But four days after he lay down he messed himself. I washed him in the bathtub and massaged his coat with conditioner until it glistened. We held a tearful meeting. It was time to call Dr. Pruyn.
Within seconds the phenobarbital stopped Radish’s heart and closed down his brain. As we kissed him and said goodbye the light in his eyes went out. I wrapped him in a horse blanket and carried him outside. Clara ran from us and sat in the snow, confused. We buried him with his feed dish and a tennis ball, in the rhubarb patch, just downhill from the apple tree.
It was Valentine’s Day.
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BILL VAUGHN