Good Dog

The Gift of the Mystery Mutt

The odd mix that is Dexter proves that perfection comes from unexpected places

An illustration of a dog in a boat with a fishing rod. Green bass look up around him

Illustration: JOHN CUNEO

Let us now praise odd-looking dogs—the homely ones, the mystery breeds, the kind that don’t quite make sense no matter how long you stare. Let’s praise dogs like Dexter, the mutt of my heart. Take a wiener dog’s length, add a pit bull’s muscles and a hound’s mournful mug, and top it all with an extravagant pair of ears stolen from the set of Gremlins: That’s getting close. But it still does not quite pin him down. Mystery swirls like the brindling of his coat. Dexter is not meant to make sense.

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Walking a dog like this is a form of street theater, entertainment for walker and observer alike. He often makes people forget their manners, stop short, look down, and ask, What in the heck? It isn’t meanness that causes people to talk that way. It’s simple confusion, of a sweet and pleasurable kind. Dexter is a canine Rorschach test: dachshund? Rhodesian ridgeback? A dash of Catahoula? The answer says more about the viewer’s psyche than about the dog. Everyone has a guess, and no two are alike. What, exactly, are we looking at?

He’s had that effect on people ever since he was a puppy on the mean streets of Polk County, Florida. We’re told that somebody called the wildlife removal folks—not dogcatcher, mind you, but wildlife removal. Those are generally the people you call for nuisance raccoons or problem polecats. Maybe the caller got mixed up; Dexter was even odder and more unplaceable-looking as a puppy. You can imagine the confusion as they tightened the searchlight on him that night. What in the heck? Even in Polk County, where they are used to the most exotic of God’s creatures, this was a puzzler.

The path that brought him from a steel crate on the back of a pickup truck to our home was winding and cobbled together, which fits Dexter’s entire aesthetic. My wife, Katie, has a friend who “rescued” the puppy and named him for a television serial killer. The adoption was short-lived. Soon enough, kibble and shots started adding up, and the beige-carpeted one-bedroom got a little too small. After about a month, she called my wife, crying. Could we take him?

At the time, it seemed like serendipity. We were about two months into our marriage and living on an endearingly dicey street in Tampa that sometimes tipped toward real menace—a nonfictional serial killer roamed the neighborhood for a time. Since eons of technological advances have produced no better security system than a dog with a badass bark, it felt like the right choice. We drove an hour inland to see him.

I’d been told to expect a “pit mix.” The image that phrase conjures in the mind did not quite match the puppy who greeted us meekly at the door. Maybe there was some pit bull, somewhere, but the “mix” included everything else in the genus Canis, from dachshund to dingo. And worst of all, he was completely silent. We aren’t getting a guard dog that doesn’t bark, I said. Maybe if he looked cool, at least. But Katie saw something in this strange animal that I didn’t. She insisted: This was our dog, ours forever; we would not regret it.

I am not proud to remember how long I stonewalled. Days passed, tears were shed. But at last, we went back for a second look. This time when we knocked on the apartment door, the once-silent puppy unleashed a snarling, basso bark, worthy of his red-nosed-pit forebears. Okay, okay, I said, once my heart crawled back down into my chest. We’ll take him.

We learned what type of dog we’d wound up with on that first car ride home. Maybe ten minutes into the drive, a strange noise came from the back seat. Our new puppy had located an empty Frosty cup and tidily, politely vomited into it. No muss, no fuss, no cleanup required. Now, who taught you that? I wanted to ask. Isn’t it in puppies’ nature to sow chaos and destruction wherever they tread? But no, not Dexter. He seemed to come preloaded with a powerful sense of morality. It would have been rude of him to puke in these people’s car when they were kind enough to take him home. The way I had begrudged my wife’s quick decision already seemed silly.

Because here as ever, Katie was right. I don’t mean this as a yuk-yuk browbeaten-husband routine. I offer it as an uncanny fact: In the things that matter, the deep and inscrutable questions, my wife is just always right. Dexter is there whenever I need to be reminded (which is often enough). It’s a useful shorthand when I get caught up in appearances, fail to let the spirit move me. Remember, we almost didn’t get Dexter. That’s usually enough to spook me back onto the right track.

Since that car ride, Dexter has been a linchpin of our life together. Given that he came into our lives shortly after our marriage, we decided that he was born on our wedding day. I track his life span in terms of our marriage, our marriage in terms of Dexter. The two cannot be untangled. He has been a resident celebrity on every street we’ve lived on, from Florida to Georgia and back. He has indeed been the perfect guard dog—that booming bark is highly effective, as long as you cannot see the creature who made it. He is a veteran of fishing boats and the Appalachian Trail. He is an in-demand party guest. He is a sober and dignified source of comic relief: The Buster Keaton deadpan attached to that body is priceless, pure gold.

Don’t let me be misunderstood. Praising this rocky road mix of a mutt isn’t a jab against more on-brand pets. All my life I’ve wanted a bona fide bird dog, some graceful long strider with an operatic voice. But the important thing is that I am no longer actively seeking one. I’m content to wait for him or her to wander into my life.

Because after Dexter, the idea of going in search of the Perfect Dog seems absurd. How could we, after seeing the perfection that simply dropped into our laps? Careful planning seems foolish now. The things that have simply happened to us—the dog that simply happened—have taught us to accept the unforeseen gift, place our faith in the uproarious surprise.

Around this time last year, we welcomed our first child. Surprising and unmanageable things have started to take up a much bigger slice of our days. And as good a dog as Dexter has been for the first phase of our life together, I believe he’ll be even better for the next one. Children cotton to him with a fierce, shrieking joy, always have.

Ezra is no exception. Our son is delighted by many things—raspberries, music, his grandmothers, the play of light and shadow on walls. But perhaps most of all, he is delighted by Dexter. Having recently mastered a Fisher-Price baby walker, he wants nothing more than to charge toward whatever corner of the house Dexter is occupying. Dexter stands pat until the very last second. Then, grinning, he swivels that odd length of body out of the way like a toreador. The child squawks with joy and comes around for another pass.

It’s wonderful to watch. And instructive. We adults delight in Dexter because he is unusual looking, because he plays with our set notions of what a dog is supposed to be. Ezra delights in Dexter simply because he is a dog. For him, that is glory enough. May it be that way forever.