Good Dog

The Education of a Beagle

How a neurotic city dog found itself in the woods

Illustration: John Cuneo

My beagle is a purebred, white-tipped-tailed, big-eared baby. Sure, he looks like any one of the pack of rabbit hounds my Uncle Ed kept penned beside his trailer in East Tennessee all my growing-up years. But he’s nothing like those real hunting dogs.

My Bubba is a sensitive boy. He may have a keen sense of smell, perfect for nosing through the kitchen garbage, but he is not scent driven. He is fear driven. He has a delicate, anxious spirit. He’s afraid of the rain, crowds of people, even our twelve-pound Chihuahua mix, who claimed her place as the alpha dog in our family pack of two long ago. Then again, my beagle is from L.A.

I had been living in Pasadena for nearly ten years when I decided I needed a beagle. Needed, not wanted. I was missing home and longing for all things Southern. Every sensory receptacle in my brain was flooded with thoughts of overly sweet tea, buttered grits, banana pudding. All clichés, yes, but your memories are colored that way when you’re more than two thousand miles from home.

I spotted an ad for a beagle pup and immediately pictured myself lingering outside my uncle’s chain-link pen, begging him to take me hunting just so I could ride along with the dogs in the back of his pickup. Begging got me nowhere then. This time, my husband only asked that we name the puppy Jeff Lynne, after the lead singer of ELO. I knew I was going to break that promise even as I was making it—not typical of my behavior, but I was homesick something bad. So Bubba was procured under false pretenses, and in an L.A.-karma way of thinking, I may very well deserve this psychologically challenged dog.

I paid five hundred dollars for him even though I knew the classifieds back home asked no more than fifty. Some litters were offered up for free. Every dog I had ever owned had come from a shelter, and as I wrote the check to the breeder, I promised to donate more often and more generously to the local shelters. (Reminder to self: Write another check.) But my dog’s pretty papers came with the California state seal emblazoned on the top in impressive gold-colored ink. My beagle was certified, authentic, even though I lost the papers within weeks of bringing him home. Of all the puppies there the day I picked him up, Bubba was the one that came right to me, big ears nearly dragging across the ground. He chewed on my shoelace and whimpered and fussed, waiting for me to lift him. At the time, his needy nature was cute.

During the forty-five-minute drive back from the Valley to Pasadena, he cried. He cried and cried…and then cried some more. I should have realized then that he was a special dog with special needs, not the rugged outdoorsy type you expect of a true hound. But I excused his behavior. “He’s so young. This is traumatic. He misses his mama,” etc.
When we got home, I set about reinforcing our fence, certain that if Bubba were to dig his way out, he’d run free, far and free, tracking some animal scent to the point of exhaustion. A few days later, I let him out to play and within minutes he did escape. But he ran straight to the front door, crying for someone to let him back into the house.

Oh, the crying. He cried on walks, wanting me to carry him in my arms. He cried at bedtime, wanting to sleep beside me. He cried if I left the house. He cried when I came home. He still cries if he’s left alone outside, and is darn near catatonic when a thunderstorm sweeps by.

In hopes of emboldening him, I watched lots of episodes of Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer. I read books on training dogs and dog behavior. I read to Bubba, anything to calm him. A friend even suggested I call a pet psychic she’d read about, as if coming to terms with Bubba’s past lives would bring him (and me) some peace.

Thankfully, he improved some with age. He grew to love his walks (and my husband’s over-the-calf dress socks, which the vet kindly returned after Bubba coughed them up during a routine visit). He loves to sit on the porch and watch a light sprinkle, although he’s still terrified of thunder. He likes to jump in the car but doesn’t like the car to move.

So when we moved back to Tennessee, Bubba chewed off one of his rear toenails before we even crossed the California state line. We stopped at a Walgreens and bandaged his bleeding paw and found a vet outside of Kingston, Arizona, who gave us a big bottle of pills and promised they’d get us to Tennessee. He also suggested we consider a daily dose of Prozac. Bubba’s toenail grew back, although it doesn’t look the same; it’s thinner and weaker than the others. We tried an antidepressant regimen but were never sure it had any effect.

Once we got to Nashville, we had no choice but to rent a small apartment for a couple of months until our house was ready. I had arranged for Bubba to stay with a family friend on a working farm about forty miles outside of town—fifty beautiful acres with ponds, horses, cattle, even one very large picturesque red barn. My husband assured me that Bubba would be in paradise.

It was cold and snowy that February day I drove my beagle out to Lebanon, Tennessee. Mr. Duncan greeted me dressed in overalls and wearing thick black-rimmed glasses fixed low on his nose. He looked kind and wise, and the soft twang in his voice was charming. I pictured Bubba curled up at his feet during the evening, both of them growing sleepy by a crackling fire, exhausted from a day spent walking the land.

I unpacked Bubba’s bed, his chew toys, his favorite stuffed goose, his special food, his special harness, his medications, and his Walgreens prescription card. Mr. Duncan smiled as he stacked it all inside a nearby shed. He explained that Bubba would be sharing a pen with Molly, their little female beagle mix. They even had a second doghouse ready in the pen just for Bubba.

“Outside?” I asked as I held my hands in the air, palms upright, catching snowflakes as proof that it was too cold for Bubba to be unprotected from the elements.

“Outside,” he said, and smiled. Mr. Duncan assured me that the dogs would be fine. After all, Bubba would surely wander into Molly’s house if he got cold. They’d cuddle up together. Besides, he had padded the doghouse floor with wool blankets and had even tacked another blanket across the opening for protection against the wind. Of course, if it got down to ten, he promised me, they’d bring the dogs inside.

“Ten,” I repeated. “Freezing is thirty-two degrees. Ten?”

Mr. Duncan smiled. “Ten.”

Bubba kept close to my side at first, but then with his nose to the ground, and ignorant of the conversation about his housing conditions and the week’s arctic forecast, he wandered off. He kept his head low as new and strange scents led him up a small slope, which is why he didn’t see the electric fence and ran yelping after the current buzzed the top of his head.

Mr. Duncan laughed. “Don’t worry, hon,” he said. “We’ll make a real dog out of him.”

This time, I was the one who cried, all the way back to Nashville. I called every day to check on him. I watched the weather closely, and I cried every time the temperature dipped near freezing. “He is not a country dog,” I told my husband. “He’s from L.A.”

Every day Mr. Duncan reassured me that Bubba was doing fine. He and Molly had been shacking up together, spending the short winter days huddled side by side in their wool-blanketed nest. By the time I picked him up, in the middle of March, the temperatures had turned warm and the grasses bright green, and Bubba was happy. He might even have been in love.

He changed on that farm. Maybe the fear was shocked right out of him at the start, or maybe he got in touch with his roots, or maybe Molly opened his heart and fortified his courage. I’m not sure, but I know he’s different—calmer, more relaxed, more at ease in his own coat.

When I stepped out of my car, Bubba ran over and jumped and licked and did everything he could to reassure me he was not mad at me for abandoning him in the cold like that. Somewhere out on that Tennessee landscape, he became more of a real dog, just as Mr. Duncan had promised. I’m not sure I’d take him rabbit hunting. But at least he’s no longer afraid of the rabbit.