Good Dog

A Marriage for the Dogs

Sometimes nuptials involve a merging of the packs

Illustration: John Cuneo

When my husband and I got married, we were as concerned about merging our dogs as we were our children. Turns out the children were remarkably easy, but the Brady Bunch thing is a much more difficult and complicated process when it involves teeth and ticks and peeing on what you think belongs to you. He had two border collies who had always lived outside and whose days were all about working hard. Rufus and Okra are siblings–Rufus, a handsome redhead, is so intelligent you expect him to open his mouth and speak in complete sentences, to quote Shakespeare or ask to borrow the truck. Okra is black and white and needy all over. She was the runt of their litter and clearly did not get enough attention from their mother. If she could talk, she would be saying “Pet me, pet me, pet me, love me best.” If Rufus could drive the truck, he could take her to therapy to work on some of these issues. Their visits inside the house were limited to freezing cold nights (a rare thing in North Carolina), and neither possessed cuddly stuffed toys. They ate whatever was available, and their feet were perpetually stained orange from the red clay lining the pond and the banks of the Eno River where they spent what little bit of leisure time they had attempting to catch frogs and fish and chasing deer. They are rustic back-to-nature dogs who live simply and work hard. This is the life they have always known.

Meanwhile, my not so neatly assembled pack were all from the North. Vanessa, a yellow Lab from Massachusetts, had spent much of her life lounging on the sofa watching television. She was so sweetly submissive that she couldn’t help but pee a little upon greeting people–a problem for which I sought help from an animal behaviorist but with no success; she also had a little attachment problem where she had to have something in her mouth in order to go outside. If she couldn’t find one of her stuffed toys, she would grab the nearest fabric she could find. At the end of one particularly snowy frozen winter, I marveled at how I seemed to be missing a lot of socks and underwear, only to discover with the thaw that Vanessa had left a good portion of my belongings in the driveway. She was the largest and the oldest in my pack but had no authority whatsoever, which didn’t seem to bother her so long as meals were served and there was room on the couch.

At the top of the pack was Daisy, a sheltie who was a year younger than Vanessa. Born in Rhode Island to a breeder who also raised Jack Russells, Daisy had come into life a little hyper and nervous. She circled cars in the driveway and children in the yard. She rounded up Vanessa when she was moving too slowly. She was the best babysitter I ever had, and even when the kids were teenagers, I would hear the clicking of her nails as she tiptoed room to room to make sure they were where they were supposed to be before flopping down and finally closing her eyes. She was ever vigilant though still not above the stuffed toys and cookies Vanessa thrived on.

And last there was Buster, a Shi-poo-whatever mix who had been passed off to us as a papillon because that’s what my son, then eight, had said he wanted. He had been asked at school to name what he would wish if given three wishes, and he had said: (1) to live a regular life plus a hundred years; (2) for everyone he loved to live a regular life plus a hundred years; and (3) a papillon. It was at the height of a time when he was asking all sorts of dark existential questions about death, and so granting that particular wish seemed an easy thing to do. And there was my pack of Yankee dogs–small, medium, and large–whom I now had to ready for a move below the Mason-Dixon and not just south but into a life with goats and chickens and step-dogs who had never spent a day of their lives sleeping on the couch and watching Sex and the City, as Vanessa had spent so many hours doing with my daughter.

The sixteen-hour trip loomed before us. No way to do it but a straight drive. The cat, Crystal, was in the way back in a crate, Vanessa stretched out on the backseat, Buster perched on the console like a little hood ornament, and Daisy–nervous about the whole event–on my lap, drooling and passing gas as she always did with difficult transitions. The vet had given me a pill to give the cat if she didn’t settle down, and I was tempted to take it myself on that ninety-degree day, somewhere around the Bronx where my gas light came on while in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a bridge and Vanessa got carsick. I saved the pill as a keepsake and reminder of how things did not get as bad as they could have.

When the merge happened, the Southern dogs were warm and friendly, wet with river water and happy to greet the new arrivals. Vanessa thought this was all just fine and just wanted something to eat and of course to find her way to the nearest air-conditioned room and couch. Daisy–more finicky about her associations–spun in circles, round and round and round and could not find a comfortable spot to flop. She busted out a screen on the porch and gnawed up the bathroom door. Buster made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t like to share anything–not food or bed or toy or human; he has the Napoleon complex and always has to pee last and was anxiously marking everything in sight. Rufus and Okra became confused and forlorn as they stood with their noses pressed against the glass, not understanding why the new guys were allowed where they had never been. This is when Rufus–in another form–might have gotten the keys to the truck, said something cool like “Suit yourself,” and driven around the back roads to try to make sense of it all, while Okra kept begging them to like her, to like the South, the humidity, and the snakes, the parade of possums and raccoons they would all soon encounter. “Like me. Like me. Like me.”

It wasn’t too long before Vanessa was swimming in the pond several times a day and Daisy had come to appreciate the shade of a big bush where she could watch with great vigilance the coming and going of any car in the driveway. They all came to appreciate the fine delicacy of goat and rabbit droppings and the occasional stray chicken. There were even times when Rufus (maybe he thought no one was watching) collected a few stuffed toys Vanessa left around the yard, and stretched out in the shade to take a nap. It was paradise, and I was happy that Vanessa and Daisy got to enjoy that brief window of Southern retirement before old age took them.

And this is when the Brady Bunch became Yours, Mine, and Ours. In dealing with the deaths of Vanessa and Daisy, we decided to get a puppy. Enter the big baby–a Bulgarian shepherd, bred to guard livestock. His given name is Znam, but we call him Zeno or just Z, and he wouldn’t want to sleep inside if you offered it, preferring to stretch right out in a cold driving rain. He is one with the elements. However, he does love a cookie, and he does like toys, though his tend to be tools he pulls from the barn or dead squirrels or deer skulls he brings up from the river. We have often found him tossing and fetching a possum playing possum, and he handles snakes pretty regularly. He doesn’t seem to mind a bit that Buster continues to come and go in and out of the house and pees after everyone else or that Rufus is in charge. He’s a working dog, but he also loves to play and then stretch out and take long naps. He wouldn’t go to the city if you paid him, but Rufus might, and of course, he would want to drive