The Sounds at Present Crows are making a ruckus in the neighborhood. Some game is afoot. The rightful claim to a squirrel carcass is in dispute maybe. A Duraflame faux wood-burning stove is sighing warm air around my writing hut, … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes
Why do people welcome dogs into their homes? As you might imagine, I already have my answer to this question, but it’s worth asking out loud anyway.
In fact, I knew well in advance why the Coleman family adopted Sherlock Holmes, a three-year-old foxhound, on December 17, 2018. Not for an instant have wife Kathy and I regretted our decision, but as the honeymoon period of sharing 900 square feet with this hooping, nose-to-earth sleuth wanes, the consequences of rescuing a stray snap into focus.
Today’s tame reckoning takes me back to 1988, the year daughter Elena was born. “Everything is an ordeal,” I groaned. “We can’t even run to the store without holding a strategy session.” Pros and cons had to be listed. The toil of wrestling a surprisingly strong, howling infant into a car seat had to be weighed against other exertions scheduled for the day.
Daily life, though joyful, was also a snarling pack of unintended consequences. There was no end to what needed to be reconsidered in the light of parenting a fresh baby.
Three decades later, adapting to Sherlock Holmes is child’s play by comparison. His food-in to food-out ratio is owner-friendly, thank goodness. I’ve lived with German shepherd Dutch and black-lab mix Watson before, so I know what it’s like to wander about with a shovel and hold my gag reflex at bay.
The bigger aesthetic issue is mud, which Mr. Holmes generates with a Midas touch. The chap is all leg and paw. At a sprint on level terrain, he appears to be careening down a steep hill. Bone, lean muscle and fur swing in all directions. Yard slurry flies like in a macho truck commercial.
No worries, though, as a rag by the backdoor and grass seed come spring will put matters right. Even Sherlock’s scavenging for treats can be managed with a toddler’s gate across the kitchen doorway, which has so far fooled him into doubting his steeplechase skills. Good thing, for no corner of the countertops is out of his reach. The other night Kathy spent three hours baking healthy treats for “Holmes”—her preferred handle—but left two cookie sheets of them unguarded. He consumed 2/3 of the batch, which means he’ll be lively and regular for days to come.
Mr. Holmes’ need for stimulation and activity has certainly been an adjustment, but since this benefits our sedentary family, we can only thank him for three-mile walks and bracing excursions to the dog park.
In fact, our gratitude for this overgrown beagle has more to do with spiritual than physical wellbeing. I figured this would be the case.
No newsflash here. Dog owners share an understanding that living with animals taps into a deep reservoir of human emotion. If you own a computer, check out “puppy surprise” videos on YouTube. Just have Kleenex nearby. Thousands like me watch as a golden retriever or pug or dachshund gets handed to an unsuspecting person of any age or gender. First there’s a gasp, then a squeal, scream or “aw,” and, of course, tears.
Kisses on the snout follow, along with blissed out petting and hugging. Some folks go to pieces, rocking from side to side with their foreheads resting on the floor.
I myself have never cried over adopting a dog, but I’ve been undone by saying goodbye and know exactly why this Oniontown pastor bothered to take in a frightened, confused stray.
When I get home later, I’ll sit on the couch and pull his face toward mine, breathe in the earthy smell of dog and run my face over his head for as long as he’ll stay still.
If you’ve ever done something like this with your dog—or cat or whatever—you know that time stops as you take in draughts of blessing.
You’ll never hear me put “just” before “a dog.” The sweet nothings we whisper in our foundling’s ear can never compensate him enough for what he gives.
And what he gives is an invitation to love, especially when nothing else can draw us outside of our personal cages or stop us from chewing the cud of sad memories.
You and I were born to love. Every word or action suggesting otherwise is a bad translation of what we were created to be.
Dogs like Sherlock Holmes return us to our fundamental truth. His eyes tell me, “If you forget how to love, don’t worry. I’ll be here to remind you.”
The Coleman family’s black lab, terrier mix is named after Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. John Watson. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson is intelligent, insightful, not like Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of a hapless, bumbling partner to Basil Rathbone’s smooth-operating Holmes. If you want to see a faithful adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, find the Granada Television’s series starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke (or David Burke). The Brits keep close to Conan Doyle, so when Watson seems inept, it’s only because he’s working beside Holmes, who can solve a crime by noticing how butter has melted or how a rope has been cut. Nobody can keep up with Holmes.
When the name Watson came to me, I was thinking of Hardwicke or Burke, but the dog I fell in love with the moment neighbor Meg brought him as a stray to our door has proven to be more like Nigel Bruce’s Watson. He’s the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet, though you wouldn’t think so if you rang the doorbell. He barks so loudly and long that you’d think his eyeballs would fly out of his head. Then you come inside, he sniffs you, you pat his head, and he says in dog language, “Let’s play fetch.”
He’s amiable, but kind of sluggish. Toss him a piece of filet mignon, and it’ll hit him between the eyes and land on the floor. He’ll pause, sniff, gingerly take it between his front teeth, and let it roll back onto his tongue—as if it might be a little square of plastic explosives. Even as an old guy who’s seen as much as the next dog, he still hasn’t figured out the vacuum cleaner. He’s never been able to trust it.
I could name a dozen annoying habits Watson has (example: he fidgets and meanders constantly during his daily constitutional so that our backyard looks like its been aerated), but he’s such a faithful napping partner I hold nothing against him. When this dog dies, I’m going to be in trouble; that’s how close we are.
We have a routine. I say, “Okay, Watty, you want to go take a nap?”
I start up the stairs, and nine days of out ten, I hear Watson’s labored, clicking steps behind me. He’s nine and has torn both ACLs—we had one repaired, no cheap date.
I lie down on the bed, pat the other side, and say, “Come on, get your spot.”
He looks up at me as if to say, “You know I’m a gimp. Why do you do this to me?” But then he hops up, pirouettes, and plunks down.
From this point on, Watson has a menu of behaviors to choose from. If there are no disturbances, he’s asleep quickly.
As he settles in, he often devotes two or three minutes to making old mutt smacking noises with his fat wet mouth. It’s as if he’s tasting and re-tasting whatever he last ate. If he doesn’t let up, I say, “Watson, seriously!” and he stops, snorts, and puts his chin on his front paws.
A few days ago wife Kathy and daughter Elena took him for a walk on a warm afternoon, so it was a pooped Watson who joined me on the bed. He was panting so hard the bed rocked to his breathing’s fast, jerky rhythm. Eventually I opened my eyes. Not only was he being loud, but every ten seconds a drop of spit fell from his exercise-swollen tongue. I was okay with this. It’s hard to get mad at a senior citizen who’s just worked out.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to get annoyed when dog-walking traffic is brisk on Shenley Drive and Watson has to warn all passersby that he’s watching. He slides from the bed, sticks his snout against the screen, and hollers. All it takes to quiet him is a gentle “Watty, I don’t want to hear it,” but then he switches to short, throaty groans. He only relaxes again when everything’s clear.
Amazingly, most days I fall asleep. On wakeful afternoons, I remember how blessed it feels to rest next to a dog that channels Nigel Bruce.
Watson’s also my prayer partner, especially when I sit propped on the bed. Here we follow the siesta routine because to him sleep and prayer look a lot alike. I will admit that last week he came close to upsetting me. About fifteen minutes into a half-hour sit, my pal hopped up on the bed, looked at me with confused eyes, scratched the comforter to make a sweet spot, glanced at me again, then flopped.
Warning: if you have a twitchy gag reflex, you may want to pass on the rest of the story.
Thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three. Then the retching began.
(Coleman pets have had a long-standing policy of getting sick in aggravating places. First, never on tile; always on carpet. Second, if you value something, secure it. I once left a new Asus laptop open in my study, and a cat named Greasy Spot leapt onto my desk and had the mother of all appointments with loose bowels on the keyboard. The computer survived but was thereafter known as the craptop. And third, it is possible to hide hairballs. Years ago a cat left one in the toe of one of my moccasin slippers. Imagine how I discovered it.)
About that retching: “On the bed, Watson,” I said. “Really?”
Really. I won’t get detailed (you’re welcome), but it was a blonde, abundant, single unit.
I went downstairs to fetch wet rags and returned to find that—remember, you were warned—the puke was gone. I mean, gone. Watson was no longer confused; in fact, he seemed pleased.
I went through the motions, scrubbing away at where the incident had occurred, but, wow, the dog doesn’t even clean his food bowl that well. Glad it hadn’t happened on my pillow; I’d never have known.
Confession: I finished praying before taking the comforter to the basement. And I wasn’t angry at my buddy. What’s a little barking and barfing between loved ones? This afternoon he’ll be joining me again for blessed oblivion.