Despite his fierce looks,Wolfie is the sweetest dog I\’ve ever had. He has caught many an errant hen for me without ever drawing blood. He has declined to decapitate goats who butted him. And at the vet\’s, though he complains loudly (he is anything but stoic), he never growls. I can pick up his food dish while he\’s eating, brush his big white teeth, call him off a rotten deer haunch in the woods. He has never challenged me.
Except for this: when I throw balls for him, after a few throws he lodges the ball tightly among his back teeth, and no force on earth can make him let go. He is not nasty about this in any way. He just…refuses to let go of the ball. If I throw any other object for him–a rubber bone, a frisbee, whatever–he brings it back and hands it over without any problem. But not the ball.
So why do I insist on throwing the ball? I like efficiency, and throwing the ball (which comes with one of those arm-like \”throwers\”) allows me to exercise both dogs at once, since Bisou runs after it just as fast as Wolfie, though she wisely lets him have it. Now Wolfie doesn\’t have nearly the stamina or craziness that Bisou has, so when he gets tired after several throws (I suspect he\’s never fully recovered from anaplasmosis, a tick-borne disease) I would like to take him inside and then continue throwing balls for Bisou. But he won\’t cooperate by releasing the ball.
I could beat him over the head with the thrower. I could zap him with the electric collar which I used in his youth to \”proof\” his recalls so he wouldn\’t run out into the road. But I find those methods abhorrent and counter to the spirit of ball throwing.
This afternoon, when he lodged the ball in his mouth and got that stubborn look in his face, I took him by the collar and put him in the feed room which is part of the chicken shed. Then I got another ball and threw it for Bisou until I (but not she, never she) was exhausted. After a while I went to check on Wolfie in the feed room. He still had the ball in his mouth, but this time I was able to pry it out. Thinking to make this into a teachable moment, I offered him the ball (Take it!) and then asked him for it (Give!). Again, I had to pry it out. At the third attempt, since he still wouldn\’t give it willingly I let him keep it, shut the door, and left him in there to think about it.
Back in the house, it was dog dinner time. While I fed Bisou I kept wondering what was going on in Wolfie\’s mind. The part of me that has read piles of dog training books kept saying: he has no idea why he\’s out there; he\’s not able to make the connection between holding on to the ball and banishment to the feed room; he hasn\’t the foggiest notion of how to redeem himself. But another part of me–irrational, faith-based, possibly intuitive or perhaps just prone to wishful thinking–thought, Wolfie knows exactly what\’s going on.
I went to the feed room again. Wolfie was at the door, ball in mouth. \”Wolfie, give!\” I said, and the ball dropped into my waiting hand.
There was much rejoicing on my part, and an extra good dinner for Wolfie. The lost sheep, so to speak, had come back into the fold. But I was left with an uneasy feeling. How much more complex is Wolfie than I give him credit for? The chicken shed episode seems to show that he knew what he was being punished for, and what he should do to get back into my good graces. Moreover, he held all this in his mind for a good couple of hours.
Is my dog a rudimentary moral being? What does it mean that my tiny betta (fish), whom I bought strictly for his decorative potential, has emotional needs and demands frequent petting? What is the limit of one\’s responsibility to these beings who hang out at knee level or swim around in a glass vase on the kitchen counter?
It\’s a tiring business, having pets. Rilke thought so too, who said: \”Anything alive, that makes demands, arouses in me an infinite capacity to give it its due, the consequences of which completely use me up.\” I know what he was talking about.
(I apologize for putting you through that aggravating word verification before you can comment. I have done my best to avoid it, but last week, after spending hours getting rid of almost 200 spam comments, I cried uncle, waved the white flag and threw in the towel. It was either write posts or deal with the spam–there was no room in my life for both–so I made my choice.)