Diesel, contemplating mischief. Read more about his adventures in News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard.
In the country where we use to live, the dogs ran free. No one lived nearby, except briefly in the summer, so for most of the year we could let the dogs roam. It must have seemed logical to them, having had the run of the house, inside, to have the run of the earth, outside. Happily, they were not adventurous, or ambitious, so they never to seemed to go far, although in fact we didn’t know for sure. We reached that conclusion by counting the number of credit card solicitations and political polls we received each day by phone (three to five) and comparing the result to the number of calls from the dog officer or irritated neighbors (none or, rarely, one). We also counted ticks, of course. If the dogs were dotted with eager ticks, they had covered some territory. Near1y all the territory for miles around our place was wooded, with the occasional run-out former pasture, so the tick population flourished. If the dogs were tick-free, or mostly so, we knew they had stayed near the house, where we had cut down trees and grown something resembling grass, which we kept short, thus shifting what should have been our proportional share of the local tick population to land that belonged to others. You’ve heard of tax-shifting, where the burden of running a town is reduced for one favored class of property owners and consequently increased for another. Usually the latter is a class that hasn’t got the voting clout of the former. I’m afraid tick-shifting is a variation on that theme.
The advantage of living where the dogs can be let out to circulate, rain or shine, in relative safety is considerable. The disadvantage is that, even if you have no human neighbors to interfere with, there are creatures out there with which dogs habitually interact with disagreeable results. Skunks, for instance. I’ve shot my share of skunks over the years, mainly because, smart as we know our dogs are, they haven’t been able to master their enthusiasm for the game of bedeviling skunks. That’s the competition where the skunk stands there, tail aloft but otherwise relaxed, as the dogs bark, dance, and dart around it. Eventually, it always happens that the skunk consults his watch, remembers that he has someplace to be, decides to end this nonsense, and gives a foghorn-type toot. In the house, we immediately know what’s happened. We regard one another horrified, each searching for the magic words that will move the other to be the one to go to the door and call the dogs. When I open the door, there is no skunk, though. As the saying goes, he’s left but he’s not gone, and the two idiots are rolling on the ground, pawing at their noses, trying once again to grasp the implications of what’s just happened. Then, there must be baths, no matter the midnight hour, and the dogs find baths thrilling, which means there must be house swabbing and vacuuming. And, then there must be incarceration in the garage for what remains of the night, which the dogs do not like, so there must be repetitive, unending barking, until we relent and let them in.
As I say, getting rid of skunks (and raccoons, for that matter) had been a passion of mine, but I did have some rules, or rather one rule: don’t fire the shotgun at a skunk that is in the immediate vicinity of the house. I learned to avoid this practice years ago when a volatile neighbor, driven temporarily insane by a marauding raccoon, dispatched the varmint one night as it came around the corner of his barn bound for the chicken coop. He blew the corner boards and most of the comer off his bam, which was expensive and time consuming to repair. So, skunks, smarter by far than the dogs, made themselves at home under the front porch. He never went far when the dogs were out, and if they happened to catch him on his rounds, he leant nonchalantly against the porch, cleaning his nails and tilting his top hat rakishly to the side of his head, knowing that without question, his position was impregnable.
Pardon me, but I didn’t mean to go on about skunks. The point is that recently were visiting away from home in a village, very nice indeed, but not the sort of place where you let the boys roam. So, we put leashes on them and took them for walks, early morning, late evening. But, as cheek by jowl as village living was, there were nevertheless critters with which we had to contend.
One evening, after dark, at the edge of a lawn between two houses, a lawn that is the field of play for a croquet club, we unleashed Diesel, the English mastiff who made our lives messy for a decade or so, figuring a bit of a romp would do him, and us, good. Shortly, we heard barking, then thrashing in the border of tall cedars at the edge of the field. Then there was crashing as Diesel lopped off branches, opening up the vistas from the neighboring homeowner’s property to the sporting field. I thought skunk. I hollered for the dog. He paid me no attention whatsoever. I tracked the crashing cedar boughs, hoping I could get hold of the bloody animal before he began felling the trees, and suddenly there he was. I fished out my flashlight and shone it on Diesel, who was lying down covered with cedar branches. His nose was flat on the ground, and he was staring questioningly ahead. I moved the flashlights beam ten inches, and there, also prostrate, was a flattish, white muzzle and two black eyes, staring questioningly back at the dog. Each of them was calculating his next move. Neither was prepared to make it.
It was a possum. Diesel had never seen one before, nor had I. He adored that thing, you could tell, the way he adored the ride-on lawnmower tire that he liked me to throw for him, or the occasional cat whose sudden appearance in his path quickened his step. I was more reserved in my appreciation. If the possum was playing possum, in its tete-a-tete with Diesel, he was doing it with only the after part of his body. His face was no death mask. Rather, it was animated with a fevered mix of wonder, concern, and calculation. This was not the occasion for disinterested observation, to see what would happen next. We hauled Diesel away from the meeting and fled before the neighborhood watch got on to us.
There is nothing easy about dogs, and contrary to what we may have thought, the advantages of country living over village life are hard to calculate. If you consult the dogs, they’ll say, quite reasonably, “It’s not a decision for us to make. You decide. Just take us with you wherever you go, and we’ll find plenty to keep us occupied.”
Look for News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard, available in print and eBook formats at dougcabral.com or on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/News-Hounds-Accidental-Newspaper-Vineyard/dp/1483573761/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1469884383&sr=8-1.