Good Dog

Naughty by Nature

A skeptic’s look at just what makes a bad dog good

Photo: John Cuneo

I was against the dog from the beginning.

My little brother had made a successful case despite my objections. A tiny emotional manipulator, he had played to my dad’s innermost baby-boomer insecurities by saying, “We can’t be an all-American family without a dog.”

So we got one.

Like, immediately. We went to a breeder and came home with Braddock, whom my brother named after a Chuck Norris character. We should have shopped around.

He was a bad, bad dog. Technically, Braddock was a golden retriever, although we ended up calling him a golden, because he never retrieved a thing (unless headless Barbies from the local Catholic school yard count). He grinned like a serial killer, his face contorting into a smile that looked eerily similar to Jack Nicholson’s, and crabbed through the world like a dog made out of spare parts, his back end never really lining up with his front. He shed so much that my dad used to joke that we could sweep under the radiators and build a second, entirely new, probably better, dog. And he gave us all fleas so many times that we were forced to move out of our house for three days so the pest people could bomb it.

We called him Brad-Brad, or the Brewster, but sometimes we used a word with twelve letters. My uncle, whose hunting dogs all attended some fancy dog college in Virginia, and who as a young man had taught his black Lab to stand on its hind legs at fraternity parties and do the Cool Jerk, just called him “the worst dog in the history of the world.”

I agreed. As a teenager, about to drive, I had better things to do than to take care of Braddock, and so I gloated as each new dog-related fiasco unfolded.

Like the time he stopped eating. We still laugh at how he even refused a plate of Mom’s cookies. Only thousands of dollars of exploratory surgery discovered the problem: He’d gone into a town Dumpster and eaten a ham, plastic netting and all. The vet kept him on an IV for a week or two, my dad just shaking his head at how this terrible, terrible dog got whatever he wanted while we paid the price.

He ran off all the time, opening the front door of our house by bringing his paw down hard on the lever. Food wasn’t the only reason he sought out the back alleys of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Like a professional athlete or a touring musician, he loved random couplings with a constantly changing cast of whatever willing partners he happened to come across. So much so that it almost ruined our family vacation one year.

We were readying the car to drive to Destin, Florida, for a long-planned trip—one my father desperately needed—when we discovered that Braddock was missing. Mom couldn’t stop crying. She didn’t want to leave without knowing he was safe. So my dad, rather than see his break go up in smoke, went to the extreme: He would hire a private investigator who worked for his law firm to find the dog, he promised, if she would agree to get on the road.

She said yes, reluctantly. The poor detective hit all the usual places—using his knowledge of cheating spouses, we joked—and finally found our sweet Brad-Brad shacked up on the other side of town. On another such jaunt, Braddock didn’t come home for four days, and so my mom went looking.
That time, she found him in an alley behind the Sherwin-Williams paint store. After procuring bologna, she parked and got down on her stomach and tried to lure the Brewster toward the car, away from his dog of the night.

He refused. Mom was heartbroken.

“Some things are stronger than bologna,” my dad explained.

John Cuneo

But she couldn’t help but worry about him on these escapades—after all, that crazy dog had shown the same devotion to her. He positioned himself between her and strangers instinctively, his crazy Manson eyes working to let folks know he was not a canine to be messed with. You know how you never, ever want to fight a skinny redneck? Brad-Brad gave off that same vibe. And somehow, he knew just when to butter her up. I wasn’t home for the following stunt, but my mom and brother swear it happened: Braddock liked to roll around in the sewage-infested creek behind our house and then track mud inside. After one creek bath, he came in and someone scolded him. So he went upstairs, fetched a towel hanging off a banister, dragged it to the fireplace, and sat down on it, as my family looked on, stunned.

Begrudgingly, I began to respect this obvious emotional intelligence. Unlikely as it seemed, the world’s worst dog was also one of the smartest. Whenever anyone felt sad, or lonely, Braddock felt it, too. In the aftermath of a family tragedy and with my dad recovering from open-heart surgery, my mom sat up late for weeks on end, trying to grade papers and keep up with what seemed like a world barely hanging together. One night, when things felt especially fragile, Brad-Brad came and sat by her on the couch. He nuzzled his goofy head next to her and then, God is my witness, put his paw on her shoulder and patted it.

So I found myself not caring so much about the tracked mud or fleas or philandering walkabouts. Our family carries at its core that fiercely clannish Scotch-Irish thing, the kind of loyalty that causes people to go to war to avenge one of their own. In that regard, Braddock belonged; he’d proved himself worthy of the last name Thompson. Then, post-college, I was home after a bad breakup and in particular need of comfort, when he came and slept by my bed. That did it. I would never be a “dog person”—except for one, bless his heart, the glorious idiot dumbass wonderful Brad.

He’d gone from being so bad he bonded us, in opposition to his chaos, to being so essential that everyone in the house doted over him when he got sick and started to slip.

The day the doctor called to deliver the news that Braddock’s time was up, I went with my dad to the vet. I still remember driving over the railroad tracks to the office, a familiar rumble Braddock always recognized as a sign he was going to be boarded, which he hated. Instead, we brought his body home and my dad carried Braddock to the backyard wrapped in a white sheet, and gently placed him on the ground. There, between the creek where Brad-Brad found years of mud, and the house where he tracked it, my father dug a hole and then filled it back up again.

Now I keep his red collar in my office, touching it sometimes—to remember not just the worst/best dog ever, but also the time when he lived with us, a world gone and buried just as surely as he.