Good Dog

A Puzzling Pooch

On trying to understand
Winnie, the wonder-why-she-looks-like-that dog

Photo: John Cuneo

If you want proof of God’s sense of humor, please take as exhibit A our dog Winnie’s inexplicable body.

It’s nothing shocking, at first, no extra tail coming out of her head or anything like that, but give it a moment. You’ll see her nice tan color, a frame you can tell started out in the Labrador family before her ancestors made some dubious choices in romance. When she stands, though, take a look at her hind legs. They are too long, undoubtedly, and are in strange proportion to her front ones, as if she were put together by a child with mismatched Legos. You could place a marble on her rump and it would roll to her collar. Even when she sits, it’s like these back legs get in the way of their own job. They’re too big to tuck under her belly and so splay out uselessly to the sides. You’ll say, “Sit, Winnie,” and she’ll do it and look up at you expectantly, but by the time you look down, she’s already sliding away. 

From a distance, she looks normal enough. We’ve gotten compliments from people on walks, older people typically, likely glaucomic, on what a handsome dog she is. Winnie’s response to these comments is to strain her body against her harness, to act as if all she wants in life is to maul these sweet people, as she grunts like a pig. “Sorry,” we say. “She’s not choking. She just sounds like that.” But exactly how this leash makes her grunt is also an anatomical mystery, as the harness is around her chest and not her throat. 

And what a remarkable chest she has! She is three years old, roughly twenty-one in people years, and I’ve checked with my wife about the most respectable way to describe this aspect of Winnie’s physique and she says it is perfectly fair to call our dog “buxom.” I recognize that many breeds are lauded for their broad chests, but Winnie’s chest, if you can call it that, appears to have too much fur or flesh or fat or something. Her undersized front legs look barely able to sustain the weight, like those juiced-up, top-heavy chickens you sometimes read about, falling face-first around the pen.

Add to these delights the surplus of bones Winnie seems to have in her skeleton. Imagine her body as a xylophone. On most dogs, you could strike the keys from their shoulders to their belly. For Winnie, you can play a ditty all the way to the tail. We’ve waited for our vet to comment on this, to ask if Winnie could be studied by science, her extra bones perhaps donated to some boneless dogs, but she’s said nothing.

My wife and I are trying to appreciate Winnie more than we do. This may seem coldhearted, especially after the endearing abnormalities I’ve described, but what you need to know is that our dog’s personality seems engineered to drive well-intentioned humans insane.

To be fair, she came into our home on the heels of a dog named Gus who had passed away at an old age the year before. This was an otherworldly good dog who wouldn’t ever have run out of a fence or barked at the wrong person or woken you up at night for no reason. This dog was so good that he did all his business in the back of the yard, behind the bushes, so we’d never have to step in it or even see it. A considerate dog. I imagine that when he showed up in dog heaven, there were some old-timers there, like, “Damn, this Gus guy is pretty chill.” Anyway, my wife and I cried for weeks when he passed. We had to explain death to our children, who were younger then, for the first time. His ghost is a lot to live up to.

It was my idea to get a new dog, about six months after Gus died, for safety, for companionship, for something to love, and it took me another few months of begging for my wife to agree. She was still grieving, she said, but eventually relented without enthusiasm. So I was kind of behind the eight ball, maritally speaking, when it came to making a good choice.

I found Winnie online, where it turns out that nearly 40 percent of fraught relationships begin. She lived on a farm in Mississippi, about two hours north of us in New Orleans, and in the picture was standing atop a metal washtub, about six months old, in the middle of a muddied pen. A litter of similar pups rolled around in the dirt beside her. A rusted trailer sat in the back. It looked like a good home, and she appeared healthy and happy. She had a face like a shar-pei back then, with so many cute baby wrinkles you’d never expect she could hatch such a plan as she did.

This plan, and one of the reasons Winnie can be hard to love without some reservation, is that since the minute we got her to New Orleans, Winnie has been trying to get back home. Rather than running away, though, as a normal dog might, she has taken the strategy of trying to transform our suburban backyard into the same rustic tableau she first knew. She began by producing urine so toxic as to kill any grass it is sprayed upon. We are talking well-established St. Augustine. This stuff lived through Hurricane Katrina. Any weeds she was unable to brown through her bodily fluids she simply dug up. It’s all gone now, the whole lawn, as is the sod I bought to replace it.

Winnie is open-minded in what she deems fit to destroy. She has chewed up water hoses, the boxes that hold water hoses, BBQ utensils, aluminum cans, six of her own dog beds, the doorway of her own doghouse, the doorway of our house, bags of charcoal, bags of wood, bird feeders, even the insulation off of our AC unit. Any time we do a jigsaw puzzle as a family, we inevitably find the one missing piece, wet and beyond recognition, between her paws. She has also presented us with dead squirrels, rats, lizards, a bird once, a possum.

Now, I anticipate that the many dog lovers, possum lovers, and human psychologists reading this probably think we don’t do enough to entertain this sweet animal. The popular belief is that dogs only behave this way if they are bored or not properly trained. This was the theory of the very expensive dog trainer that we hired, at least. So, in our defense, please know that we walk our grunting pig dog at least twice a day for long stretches. We even attempt a good amount of fetch with Winnie, which she has adapted into another way to torture us. She will retrieve the ball with great speed but also bring it back in such an aggressive manner as to knock over children or blow out our knees. Beg her all you want, she will not give the ball back. Rather, she will keep it just out of reach of your flailing idiot hand, bruises blooming on your thighs, until you finally give up and sit down, when she will then place it at the exact distance necessary for you to have to get up again, her big smile and wagging tail as obvious as they are inscrutable.

The great debate in our house is if Winnie is either the dumbest dog on the planet or perhaps some sort of genius. After all, she has done what many of our greatest artists and architects do, which is transform the world to their liking. She protects us and gives us something to talk about and something to care for. When I check the receipt, that’s all I wanted in a dog. 

When I say we are trying to love her more, please know that what I mean is we are trying to change ourselves, and not her. Because there are times when storms so powerful roll through Louisiana that thunder shakes the house. And when this happens, Winnie changes from the raging lunatic we grit our teeth about into something more akin to our own frightened children. She will sit next to us, pressing her warm and perplexing body into our legs so firmly that it seems as if she wants to trade places with us, that she doesn’t want to be a dog anymore. It is as if she is saying, Help me, people. This is not part of my plan. And we will reach down and pet her face on these occasions, adults and kids alike, gently scratching her neck and saying nice things until her butt eventually slides her away from us and she has to reset. And then we will do it again because we are a family of all ages and species, each of us hoping the lights won’t go out, each of us glad that we’re not alone.