Pets: When your dog growls at you
Birch is sitting next to me as I write this, waiting for The Word. It is a marvelous word and makes life worth living, and so he waits.
Meanwhile, a little biography. Birch is a rescue dog, which sounds like he was held hostage in a bank robbery and I snuck in through a ceiling vent and said “Here, boy,” dangling some jerky.
No. He was a shelter dog, brought up via the pipeline that transports Southern strays to good homes in the cold North. When we met in the cold cell he was a sweet, mild, easygoing little pup.
Because he was sick.
Birch came with every possible dog problem in the book, from tick-borne blood grot to parasites to the dreaded heartworm, which we are extirpating in a yearlong course. Once modern medicine did its trick, he sprang to life, and revealed his true nature:
The insatiable eater of things. All the things.
He ruined a throw pillow I hated, and I couldn’t be mad. “Birch! Bad dog, in the sense that you oughtn’t chew pillows! But! I understand! The pattern was banal and the colors were boring! Now I can throw it away! But you should have asked my wife! Bad dog!”
I put the pillow in a closet, thinking it might be sewn up and returned to the sofa. A month passed. One day the closet was open. He found it, and spread its fluffy foam guts all over the floor: We meet again, my friend. En garde!
I hadn’t cleared the pillow disposal with my wife, so I had to restuff it and hide it again. Birch trotted off and found a fragment of a reindeer horn he’s been working on for most of fiscal 2018. The other day he cracked that thing in half, and it sounded like a rifle shot; for a moment I thought the reindeer’s relatives had hired some ace Finnish sniper to seek revenge.
I found the cracked horn and marveled: How did you not bust a tooth on this thing? I bit down on a jot of bone in a hamburger in 1981 and cracked a molar, had a sharp point I worried with my tongue for half a decade, then got a crown, which fell off a few years ago, and you’re just happily cracking antlers with no ill effects.
If I’d taken the antler away, he’d be fine. I am boss, and take away things in arbitrary demonstrations of dominance.
He looks bored when I do this: I get it, you’re Top King Pope Mr. President Emperor, howzabout you give me the Sweet Potato Twist like we both know you’re going to do.
He has to sit and wait for a command before he can eat. We have a staring match like the great European powers leading up to World War I. I could put a slab of steak on the ground, command him to stay, leave the room, Uber to the airport, fly to Paris, and he’d wait until I Skyped “OK.”
But when it comes to high-value items like peanut butter jars or the lardy suet slab he got from the bird feeder or a dead rodent or a good impromptu hot meal he coughed up in the yard … he gives me attitude.
He growls. He shows me teeth.
“Oh, no, you do not show me teeth. If anyone’s showing teeth around here, little mister, it’s me.”
Many of you are saying well, that’s unacceptable. Show him who’s boss! Pinch his scruff! Hard eye contact! Confident dominance!
Yeah. That works about as well as mooning Mount Rushmore and expecting a shocked reaction. I might as well threaten to revoke his internet privileges. A red feral mist overtakes him, and he’s back in the woods of Tennessee, fighting with other strays for a chipmunk.
Solution? Distraction with something even more high-value, like a can of meat that probably has horse shins and cow colon, and offer it in exchange for “DROP!”
By doing that, some say I’m sending the wrong signal, rewarding him. I don’t think so. The new food wipes the slate clean. All is forgotten.
Still, his reaction is disconcerting, like having a toddler who pulls a knife on you every few months. After our last energetic dispute over some disgusting stuff, he slunk up to me and tucked his head under my arm, tail down. I gave him skriches and rubs and all was forgotten, and he was happy.
And hungry. What do you have, his eyes asked. A rock? Raw pasta? A pillow? I gave him some kibble, but made him sit. And wait. Which he has been doing since I started writing this.
I could have made him wait for the piece to be edited and laid out and printed, but I think I made my point.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858 • @Lileks