Let Me Tell You About Dogs (Draft)

Let me tell you about dogs.  I know quite a lot about them.  I have owned a few and I took an almost bookish interest in dogs as a youngster.  In fact much of what I most fondly remember about dogs was picked up as a young boy, especially as a boy working a newspaper delivery route. 

Not Me. Not My Dog Either.

It is fall in Minnesota now and when I am up and out in the morning I am almost always brought back to those cold pre-dawn autumn mornings when I would be alone on my route delivering papers.  I find myself almost instinctively looking for connections with those memories and a strong connection was the ubiquitous company of dogs. 

Times were different then.  Dogs lived in the neighborhood as a class entirely unto themselves.  Their homes and yards were as much theirs as their master’s; they had names and histories that everyone knew and one almost expected them to say “good morning” when you passed them on the sidewalk, and in some ways they did just that. 

Of course many dogs were kenneled or kept indoors but so many more were free to roam alone or in random packs, returning home to eat and sleep, just like kids did not so long ago.   On my route I knew where all the dogs lived – even the strays – and they got to know me and my routines.  We became familiar with each other, respecting each other’s role in the world.  I delivered papers and simply became part of their routine once or twice a day.  Unlike other kids playing in the neighborhood, I had an almost business-like relationship with our neighborhood dogs. 

Mornings are always very quiet, but the sound of individual dogs being awakened would mark my progress on my route.  I would stir one dog and it would bark while I was near but as I moved from that house the dog would slowly stop barking only to be replaced by another at a house down the street.  Thinking of it now, I provided a secondary service to my neighbors.  A trusting neighbor could do without an alarm clock…as long as I were dependably on time, which I mostly was, and as the dogs relayed my position through the neighborhood, a person could be given good warning as to the arrival of the paper and not have to wait in a cold kitchen wrapped in a robe and terry cloth slippers. 

“The paper will be here soon, honey.  I can hear the Pringle’s dog barking.  I’ll start the coffee.”

You quickly learn a dog’s habits, its body language and bark.  I could have been blindfolded and known quite accurately where I was in the neighborhood by the barks and growls of dogs; by triangulation I think I could have pinned down my location as accurately as any modern GPS device.  (Never needed to test that skill…)

Some dogs never barked, of course.  Usually these were friendly dogs, good old lazy dogs.  They would get up, tail wagging, and take a few good sniffs.  That was about all they had in them.  I rewarded these dogs with more of my time and attention than the barking dogs.  But even the barkers deserved a good rubbing or two.  That often settled them down; it was a private pact between me and those dogs that we were in fact more or less friends.  To impress the master of the house, however, these dogs usually kept up a hearty and fearsome bark to let the home’s owner know the family dog was diligently on guard.  A steady slow sweeping wag of the dog’s tail said something else; it was the code between me and the dog that all was well.

Negotiating a new dog could be a tricky matter and rarely very straightforward.  Experience and instinct play an important role in equal measure.  You never race up to a new dog holding his ground in a yard.  Generally that isn’t going to turn out so well, even with friendly dogs.  Rather I liked to think that I was joining the pack, so to speak (too many nature films in grade school, I suppose) and earn my credentials.  For the most part that worked fine, but sometimes not so well.  Time does heal old wounds, though, and by that I mean sometimes literally.  It felt good to earn the mutual respect of some of the neighborhood’s most notorious dogs.

In fact I started tracking my more exciting introductions as conquests and did so with some pride.  I kept a tally of how often I had been bitten by a dog and it started to add up.  Most of the bites where harmless nips, a bruise at most, but those little “toy” dogs and poodles that became too popular in my neighborhood could be an especially painful nuisance.  Plagued by a Napoleon complex of some sort, they never seemed to accept the larger paper boy intruding into their territory.  And if you were not careful you could get a painful reminder that they were rather spiteful.

I do remember one dog in particular that bit off a bit more than he could chew.  A poodle, of course, which was rarely out of the house caught me off guard one day when he was out.  Most times this dog would slobber up the windows pretty good when I would enter the yard and walk up to the house to leave a paper inside the screen door.  That little dog would literally scream at the door when I dropped the paper there, but he was always safely behind the closed doors and windows, driving himself mad with his frustrated efforts to drive me away.

One day, however, I swung open the gate to the yard and a silent little mass of black fur came charging at me.  Instinctively I raised my knee to fend him – or it – off; I really wasn’t sure what was happening, everything all occurred very quickly with stealth and speed.  The little devil was hiding near some shrubs.  He came at me at a full sprint, eyes wide open with excitement and tongue swinging wildly.  The little thing was so worked up he had no breath for even a respectable growl.  When I gathered what was happening he was flying at me mouth first and planted his snout and teeth right into my knee.  It hurt…it hurt a lot.  In fact I think I broke skin on that one.  But the poor little dog took it pretty hard, too.  He saw the opportunity and went at it with admirable enthusiasm, but I guess he didn’t have much experience ambushing paper boys.  All that was going to stop him was a mouth-to-knee collision and that’s what happened.  We both got hurt. 

Of course I was mad at the dog.  Honestly, the little beast terrified me, but I felt pretty sorry for him.  At last opportunity presented itself, he finally had his chance to get me and he bungled it.  I was too busy saying “ouch” — or whatever I said back then — to notice many details of what happened next.  There was a strange silence, though, a dazed stillness…it must have been confusion as we both sorted out what had just happened.  It was a short silence, however, and soon he resumed his tirade, barking with rabid fury, but at a much safer distance for both of us. 

I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone – in fact most of what I learned about dealing with crazy dogs I wouldn’t recommend – but I just kept him in front of me and slowly worked my way to the door.  He stayed an uncomfortable foot or two away from me and I felt like that was room enough to pass.  I had a paper to deliver and so it had to be done; being responsible to our duties, he barked and I moved slowly toward the door to deliver the home owner’s paper.  I shuffled up the sidewalk, turning as needed to keep him yipping in front of me.  It was a slow nerve-wracking experience.  Had I turned my back to that little monster I would have certainly had his needle sharp little teeth in my leg.  Eventually I reached the door, dropped the paper, and slowly shuffled back toward the gate.  Out of a sense of responsibility to the owner, I made sure to slam the gate shut right after me when I got back out of the yard.  That was a tough delivery.

I did not care for the little dogs much.  In fact I still don’t and rough encounters with pampered pooches – “house dogs” we called them then – is probably why.

I preferred the bigger dogs, especially if they were the kind that didn’t bark much.  But there is a subgroup of non-barking dogs that can be especially annoying:  The Jumpers.

Jumpers, for the most part, are fairly safe even if they are annoying.  Jumpers are stuck in a sort of perpetual puppyhood.  They jump for attention or to play or because they have a synapses or two misfiring.  I don’t know.  But for the most part they present little risk.

Imagine a 90 pound paper boy, however, carrying a 30 pound newspaper bag seeing a 100 pound slobbering dog come bounding out of the darkness eager to be friends.  That can be a trying moment in a kid’s life.  Thank god most Jumpers tend to be younger or smaller than the truly big brutes that roamed the neighborhood.  Big dogs have little need to beg for friendship.

Whenever I was in the vicinity of known Jumpers, I would apply the same playground skills I acquired in avoiding teasers and bullies.  No eye contact, be as inconspicuous as possible…and that doesn’t work.  Jumpers love all kinds, even the meek.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure it worked on the playground all that well either.

Fortunately the most familiar Jumper on my route was not the 120 pound Great Dane which, despite its owner’s assurances, did not seem quite as friendly as promised, but instead my most familiar Jumper was a rather thin German Shepherd with a name like Lady or something like that. 

Lady might have been more puppy than dog, but she roamed the neighborhood without much adult supervision.  We were not quite sure where she came from, a house in the adjoining neighborhood was the best theory, and when I would see her in the morning I couldn’t have been more frustrated.

Lady would come running at killer speed, a scrawny fur coat on a rack of long bones.  She’d pull up and jump up.  And jump and jump and jump.  Amazing acrobatics, really; I did admire that, but I also did my best to reason with the dog:  “Come on, Lady.  Not this morning.  Be a good girl, Lady.”  That did nothing, of course.

Most of the time when Lady was at her worst she was only a slobbering nuisance, but on one occasion she nipped at my arm and tore a large hole in the sleeve of what was a new down ski jacket.  The rest of the winter I had a large duct tape patch adorning my jacket and this was at least a decade or two before duct tape was cool. 

Other Shepherds in the neighborhood were larger and male and they didn’t jump.  Almost invariably they were named either Prince or Duke.  Creative pet naming was not a priority in my neighborhood.  You had to give the dogs last names to keep them straight.  So it was Prince Anderson and the Joneses Duke, for example.  But there was one dog that was known by only his first name and his first name alone:  King.

King was a big and old German Shepherd rumored to be twelve years old, older than most of the kids in the neighborhood.  That alone gave him unmatched status.  He wandered the neighborhood at will.  He even showed up at school and had the habit of strolling through active ball games and or standing in the middle of the ice rink.  I suppose he might have been a little blind, but if he was it fashioned a stoic presence about him.  Often King surveyed the goings on from hilltops where he would stare off into space, big and proud, before whatever it is that motivates dogs to move told him it was time to defend a different stronghold.  And off he would go, slowly.

King’s territory was on the border of my route and I didn’t see him very often during the morning delivery.  He was more of a daytime visitor.  But I always liked seeing that big sturdy dog, especially when he did appear on a dark morning.  You might get one or two deep barks telling you he knows you’re near and that was it.  He would pace about at a distance, casually following sometimes.  Just a big old grey-brown dog unable to sleep and looking for something to do.  Even on a clear morning he seemed to appear and disappear in a mist, like a ghost. 

Ah, yes…and there were real ghosts.  I’m convinced once or twice I saw something supernatural.  Nothing to worry about though.  I had never known anyone who had actually been taken away by demon, ghost, or monster.  Plus I figured most of the spirits I saw were really cats. 

Cats frequently get associated spirits and the supernatural.  Working an early morning newspaper route in the predawn hours gives you an appreciation for why that is so.  Rarely would a cat come out to see what was happening, but they would appear silently and suddenly from a hedge or a row of overgrown grass and disappear without any apparent physical presence whatsoever.  Or they might be seen in the distance racing across a street or a field, bounding like windblown smoke on the nighttime calm and into the dark. 

I never got to know many cats.  They rarely took much interest or caused much trouble, but a particularly bold cat scared a friend once on the afternoon route.  The cat was big and impressive and had a remarkably vicious hiss.  The secret to cats is just keep moving…move straight toward them, hissing or not, and they will move.  Cats are quick.  Smart, too.  They’d rather temporarily give up the ground they’re holding and come back, after a good nap most likely, when you’re gone.

Cats are easy to deal with on a route, but this might be a good time to share a few tips for dealing with dogs.  My tips come from experience…not always experience with the best outcomes…so apply your own common sense and better judgment.

One key thing with aggressive dogs – even overly friendly dogs – is never turn and run.  Running will give the mean ones a sense of superiority and trigger their kill instinct.  The friendly ones see that game is on and engage in the sport.  In both cases you’re going to get nipped and slobbered at minimum or a tear in your new jacket or worse.  It is best to respect the dog’s space, talk quietly or even hum, and just move at an angle away from the dog.  (Dogs don’t seem to like forward and backward…one makes them defensive the other can make the aggressive.)  It should go without saying that you don’t try to intimidate a dog or charge after him, but some kids would do that and that just makes enemies.  Even the timid ones will get riled up and at least pester you more than it is worth.  Just back away, slowly and calmly, at a bit of angle.  Don’t turn and run.

Don’t look those mean dogs in the eyes, either.  In fact, the bored dog just going through the motions of barking at you as a part of a morning routine that is repeated daily for months and years most likely won’t be looking at you when he barks.  Those dogs are ok.  If you see a dog staring off toward the horizon while he’s barking, he’s just hoping you’ll drop the paper and move on.  He has other things to do.  Threatened, aggressive, or defensive dogs make eye contact.  If you make eye contact, you’re sending a signal you might not want to send.

With all dogs, but especially unfamiliar or aggressive dogs, don’t put your hand above their head or pat them.  There’s a reason why they nip and bite at your hand.  They don’t like it!  It is best to let a dog get acquainted by getting a little sniff of you.  When he turns his head and moves you’re probably ok.  Watch for licking motion.  This is the key.  I determined that this means the dog has sniffed and is satisfied and is moving on.  If he is sniffing while looking at you AND licking his chops at the same time, you have a ham sandwich in your pocket.

I’m somewhat skeptical of extending the backside of your hand for the dog to sniff as a gesture of good will.  I got nipped more than once.  Dogs can smell you fine without the extra effort on your part.  But don’t keep your hands in your pockets.  You might need to react quickly, kung fu style.

Growling dogs?  Bad.  Growling small dogs?  Worse.  Growling big dogs?  Dangerous.  Avoid all three.

This might seem obvious, but if a dog is guarding something.  Stay away.  Even a familiar dog, don’t take your chances, especially if the dog is looking at you and going berserk.

Don’t pet a dog through a fence.  Just don’t. 

Jumpers?  Best to stay quiet.  Don’t plead with them, like I did with Lady.  Don’t scold them.  Ignore them as best you can.  Turn away.  Don’t push.  Don’t knee.  Reacting to a Jumper only encourages him.  Jumping can be cured.  Unfortunately it has to start at home and often if you have a Jumper that is what you’re going to have. 

Finally, error on the side of safety.  I eventually had to act all grown up at age 12 (yes, I was that young when I started delivering papers) and advise a homeowner that I was unable to justify putting my safety at risk to make my delivery.  My voice nervously cracked and squeaked quite a bit, as I recall; I was more afraid of the homeowner than the dog at that point, but the homeowner agreed and I left the paper wedged in the cyclone fence gate at the sidewalk from that day forward.  Most people – civilized people – are good about dogs.

Which brings me to a final tip.  If you want to know something about the dog you’re going to be dealing with, look at his master.  Pampered pooches can be like spoiled children, little bullies and brats.  Mistreated dogs can be vicious and unpredictable…they’re looking to get even, perhaps understandably so.  Good people tend to have good dogs and good dog owners will help you get to know their dog.  No need to take chances in most cases and I think the dogs appreciate that too.

All these dogs around the neighborhood had a way of making dog ownership desirable.  Everyone had one, it seemed, many had several dogs.  Having a dog was like having a baseball glove.  You had to have one.  My brothers and I pressed for a dog with steady persistence and were just as steadily denied.  It took a while, but we finally coaxed our mother to our side and she joined us in thinking getting a dog might be a good idea.  We were thrilled, of course, and could hardly wait for dad to come home, victory assured.  How could he say no if we had mom backing us up?

The idea was brought up, discussed, and dismissed with disappointing efficiency.  Dad not only did not take it seriously, but he replied with something I’ll never forget.  He said:  “What do I need to buy a dog for?  I have six of them in the back yard now!”  And as I remember it…he was right.  Dogs were everywhere and the fact that these were not our dogs didn’t make a persuasive argument with dad.  But shortly after this disappointment, dad relented and we got a dog. 

For all the delays in getting our first dog, my parents were at least as enthusiastic about our new dog as we were.  We had a Springer Spaniel-Labrador mix and I was about to start learning about breeds first hand.  (Springers…a lot of energy.)  Dad built a wonderful deluxe dog house according to American Humane Society spec and then some.  All very good.  Best of all, I had a dog of my own and a companion for the entire morning route.

A Related Links:  Flashbacks of an Idiot

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