Give Your Heart to a Dog
ELIZABETH R. CHOATEhas had a way with animals from the start, and of them all her dogs were the mostdemanding. Her knowledge of the canine world, as she relates, began with her father’s hunting dogs and led in time to her own kennels in Danvers, Massachusetts, where for thirty years she has bred prize Sealyham Terriers.
by ELIZABETH R. CHOATE
IT IS not odd that I remember my father’s pack of beagles through such a seemingly unimportant sensation as the clean, sharp smell of a puppy’s breath. My delight as a small child over the litters of beagle babies quartered about the kennel knew no bounds. Their gently waving tails, silky ears, and melting brown eyes enchanted me then as they do today. The mothers of those families greeted me with the affectionate pride which dogs are wont to display toward congenial visitors who come to admire and praise; perhaps these amiable beagles provided me with the basis of my lifelong affection for animals.
The pattern of memory is strange; suddenly a picture is evoked from the past by a bar of music, a familiar scent, or the voice of an old friend. The ecstasy of smiling moments, the overwhelming griefs of childhood, and forgotten loves return to mind in a crystal flash.
Everything about dogs drew me like a magnet, and whenever I got a chance, I used to hang around the cookhouse, which was attached to the kennel. It was a primitive place, presided over by a bandy-legged groom called Harry. He was clad in breeches which were completely dependent on suspenders, a collarless shirt, and rather stylish gaiters. He affected a dirty cap cocked rakishly over one eye; a toothpick protruded from his buckteeth; and he walked gingerly, as though he had perpetually sore feet.
When he doffed his cap, Harry’s hair was discovered to be combed in traditional stable fashion. I never understood how it was accomplished until in later years I watched another groom in my father’s tack room dress his own hair with a flourish. I wouldn’t recommend this tonsorial mode unless you were fresh from the barn or the racetrack, but here is how it was done: first, whatever hair there was had to be sopping wet; second, a fine comb was drawn through the topknot, all the while turning and twisting upward until a damp curl was created and arranged in a devastating lovelock. I got the impression that no normal female could resist this effect, especially when it was enhanced by two hastily swallowed Sen Sen tablets.
In those early days I watched Harry with fascination as he prepared the feed for the pack in a caldron, which, as it seethed and bubbled, he stirred with a huge iron spoon. The hound biscuits came in barrels at that time; they were six inches square, thick, and not at all bad-tasting. I know, because I ate them. I must say that I did not go so far as to sample the meat, because it was in the form of quarters of horse, depending from big hooks in the rafters, which to a little girl of four was a frightening sight.
The beagles raised their voices to the moon, and on warm summer nights I was lulled to sleep by a concert of whippoorwills singing deep in the woods, bullfrogs booming their bass notes from the swamp, and hounds baying. They created a harmony far more pleasing than some modern music I have listened to lately. It was but a natural step from kennel to house, and we always had a beagle or two among the crowd of other dogs that inhabited our front hall, kitchen, backyard, and every other corner of the place.
MY FATHER had dark hair and brown eyes; he was a man of stocky build, as strong as Atlas. His addiction to mashed potatoes kept him perpetually overweight, but this did not prevent him from using his rather stubby hands with the greatest delicacy, and anything mechanical seemed to obey him automatically. He was an authority on guns, the author of Sporting Rifles and Rifle Shooting, which was used for years as a textbook on the subject. He poured bullets, loaded shells, and tied fishing flies with the utmost precision. He was a crack shot and an artful angler, who spent most of his time pursuing these sports. He was also a collector of gun dogs. When the express wagon drew up with a crate from Virginia, Georgia, or the Carolinas, I was always on hand to rush out and greet the new arrival. It was exciting to see what kind he had shipped home each time, and I was the one to give them the first comfort and food that people say is never forgotten by a dog when it comes to a strange place. Perhaps I was an idle child, or maybe they liked to be fussed over, but I was trailed by a queue of assorted dogs and cats wherever I went.
I never thought of them as animals; these were my friends, and I enjoyed their company twentyfour hours a day. Cats and dogs slept on my bed together in complete harmony. They put up with a lot of nonsense from me, because I was given to dressing them up in all sorts of clothes. They were perfectly tolerant when I tied bonnets on their heads or buttoned them into my sweaters. I did catch fits when I pulled a pair of my longies onto one of the big dogs, leaving his tail wagging out from the back flap. I thought this was very funny and was chagrined when my elders regarded the whole thing as an unsanitary and highly shocking stunt.
One of these friends was Rip, who was a sort of soft character. I guess he was a big liver-and-white springer spaniel, but I don’t believe he was much of a looker or a hunter either. Rip had droopy yellow eyes and a mighty mournful expression; he was known around our place as “Old Tear in Me Eye.” However poor in the field or worthless he may have been, he did have one outstanding talent, which was catching flies. In summer he sat morosely out on a big rock in the sun and just snapped them up like a skunk eating bees. His precision was unerring, and I watched him with spellbound admiration.
Then there was Jack, a stylish black-and-white pointer. He was a ranging dog who used to cover quite a lot of territory. Our name was on his collar, and about once a week, in answer to neighborly telephone calls from people living in the next county, we had to make a long trip to fetch him, and there was always a small present involved. Finally, we took the tag off his collar; the telephone calls stopped, and Jack came home anyway. Jack was not a dog who liked to be confined, so we had plenty of trouble with him on Sunday mornings. He felt in duty bound to follow us wherever we went, and no matter how we shut him up. roped or chained him, he would surely appear in church looking for us, more often than not with a length of chain clanking behind him. I remember shrinking into myself as I held my breath, hoping to escape his searching eye and questing nose when he came up the aisle; for I knew that once we were found I would be delegated to drag him out. If he missed us at the Episcopal church, he would go straight down the road to the Catholic church: it meant nothing to him if a Mass was in progress, and our housekeeper used to come home furious if Jack had spotted her and put on a display of wag-tail—lickface in front of the whole devout congregation.
It is not everybody who has a black flat-coated retriever for a nursemaid; in fact, very few people in this country know the breed at all. My father imported Pilot and used him mostly on upland game, such as pheasant and partridge, but he was equally at home in water on duck. The correct type of flat-coated retriever is much like the more familiar golden retriever of today, strong, with plenty of substance; however, the few I have seen in America at dog shows are weedy specimens indeed compared with those I knew in my childhood.
Pilot had a sensible head with plenty of room for brains, his coat shone like the blacking on our kitchen stove, and his eyes were deeply kind. He became my constant companion when I roamed the woods and fields, and was everlastingly patient as he watched me while I gathered shagbark nuts in the autumn, searched among fallen oak leaves for the first hepaticas in the spring, or climbed a tree to sit vacantly and chew spruce gum. If ever I left a mitten, a cap, or a scarf behind, it was proudly retrieved to our door with never a trace of moisture on it; his mouth was as soft as a black velvet bag.
My father ordered a mate for Pilot sent over from England, and in due time she chose to have her puppies under my playhouse. I couldn’t wait for those delectable butterballs to emerge, so I squeezed in under there every day to see them. Jill, the mother, was very pleased by my visits and greeted me with much banging of her strongtail. Her bed was warm and dry, which was ideal for her puppies, but I, who suffered from hay fever, had a sneezing fit after these calls, and what’s more, nobody ever understood how I managed to get my clothes so dirty and dusty, because I never confessed where I had been.
It was only for his family that Pilot deserted me. One spring my mother had been seriously ill, so we rented a cottage for the summer on an island a mile off the coast of Cape Ann, hoping that the sea air would hasten her recovery, and naturally Pilot came with me. After two days he disappeared. and I was desperate with worry over him.
I combed the island, searching the coves and rocks, calling and calling, but there was no sign of my black friend. I was inconsolable; my tears could not be stanched, and I cried all night, for I was sure that my beloved dog was gone forever. However, my grief was relieved the following day when we got word that Pilot was safe at home with his wife and children. When he could not stand the parting any longer, he had swum the mile of open water to the mainland and made his way back to our farm.
SEVERAL years passed before I became aware of the laws of nature and the ways of animals. It was then that I gradually began to suspect Pilot of not being the monogamous and dedicated family man that I had always supposed him to be. All along our street strong young black mongrels with a strangely familiar look began to catch my eye, and I realized that my companion had held most of the ladies of Hart Street to his bosom. Even forty years later there are unmistakable traces of Pilot’s love life in Beverly Farms.
Pilot was my love, and until he died I had never realized that someday I would have to part with him. I missed him so much that 1 foolishly asked a friend to buy me another flat-coated retriever in England. I was aghast when he shipped me a curlycoated retriever instead; it was like asking for a horse and getting a horse mackerel. This unwelcome character we called Blacker. He was all right, but it was impossible for him to fill Pilot’s place. He was a much taller dog, with a coarse head and unfortunate bold eyes. In summer my mother did not like me to bring him into the house, for she claimed that he had a big mosquito in each of the thousand curls which adorned his rugged frame.
Unlike Pilot, Blacker had an unreliable temper; he got into a battle royal with Jack, the pointer, under our kitchen table. We had a horrid job to separate them; they sounded like wild tigers as they bit and tore at each other. The cook went into hysterics and gave notice in the midst of the racket, but no one had time to pay any attention to her. Brooms were broken as if they were jackstraws, water was thrown in the dogs’ faces, and finally we whacked them with a tin dishpan, the only weapon left in the pandemonium. When the fight was over, the kitchen was a shambles, even the dishpan had bloody dents in it, and both dogs were in ribbons. I forget how many stitches it took for Dr. Linehan to put them back into shape, but it was an astronomical number. Blacker’s head was swollen like a football for weeks, and Jack walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Everyone on the place took sides, each contingent claiming victory and the most stitches as the combatants were nursed back to health,
I became an expert dog washer. I should have been, because I started young and got a lot of experience. In summer I held washday in our laundry every two weeks. It was still operated in the manner of the Gay Nineties, presided over by Old Marm Harty. She arrived at our house on foot in fair weather or foul, clad in a long skirt well reinforced with petticoats, heavy high-laced boots, and the traditional black shawl of the countrywoman over her head. When she got warmed up on three cups of strong tea and a big slice of Irish bread she waxed genial; her faded blue eyes regained their color; she displayed her only front tooth in a wide grin and held forth in an elegant brogue upon the charms of “thee auld counthree.” However, when the mercury dropped below freezing, her mood changed; then she uttered loud imprecations as she retrieved the frozen clothes from the lines in the yard. “Faith and begorra, they’re as shtiff as Paddy’s father nine days dead” was her stock complaint.
On Mondays the laundry billowed with clouds of soapy vapor as Marm Harty kindled the fire under a great vat enclosed in bricks. It was thought in those days that all the so-called body linen must be “biled.” She used a long wooden paddle with a sort of horn on the tip to stir things about and to hook out the more delicate objects. Along one wall there were set tubs, a hand wringer, and a washboard, while a big padded table served as an ironing board, on which stood an array of trivets and a plate to hold the singed rag which enclosed a sweetsmelling cake of beeswax. Hot irons were passed over the wax, and the linen was then polished to a fine glossy finish. In an anteroom stood a round stove, its belly ringed about with flatirons of all weights and sizes, including goffering and fluting irons. On the top of this rested a kettle of starch, which also had to be “biled,” and at one side were tiers of drying racks for airing the finished laundry.
Marm Harty was a rugged woman of bulging outlines. She needed to be strong, for her work was heavy as she plodded to and fro with the hot irons. Our weekly wash was something that no housewife would undertake today; big linen sheets, fringed buck towels a yard long, damask tablecloths and napkins were the rule of the time. It was also the era of embroidered dresses, ruffled petticoats, lacetrimmed drawers and corset covers. Small wonder that Marm Harty flew into a temper when she found that I had washed a hall-dozen dogs in the laundry tubs and left hair and soapy scum all over the place. However, she was a kindly soul at heart, a fixture in our family, and I was never chastised for long. She might have emitted a few “Got damns,” but in good Irish tradition, she soon cooled down.
I cannot remember what magic words I used to persuade the big dogs into the tubs, but in they did get, forepart in one, hindquarters in the other. Naturally all our dogs had fleas, so I used KnockEm-Stiff soap, which had a nice clean smell, and the dead fleas rose to the surface of the lather like chocolate jimmies on whipped cream; it always gave me a feeling of accomplishment to get a whopping crop for my pains. I took pride in my job and even had the temerity to use the bluing rag on the white dogs. The bath was finished off with a rinse of disinfectant, and everybody was clean for a while; that is, all but Rip, who always smelled like a mud turtle no matter how 1 scrubbed him. I soon learned to tie up my subjects until they were dry, for their one idea Was to rush out soaking wet and roll in the dirt. They really received the ten-dollar treatment, for I cleaned their ears and teeth, brushed out the dead hair, and combed their feather. It must have been quite a sight to see small, medium, and big dripping dogs leashed to every table and chair, shaking water all over the place as they watched their fellow Sufferers get shampooed. I did have the decency to keep a set of my own dog towels, but beyond that I used the facilities of the laundry.
Every spring I mixed up a bowlful of sulphur and molasses and spooned it down their throats. Of course, the smart ones tried to tiptoe away to avoid this medicine, but on the whole they took it manfully. Once a year I dosed my crew with a fearsome commercial vermifuge. I never knew what was in it, but there might have been almost anything. Here, for example, is a prescription, which I avoided, from an old dog book, The Dog in Health and Disease by Stonehenge, published in 1887:
|For Round Worms:|
|Betel Nut||(Nux Arecaj|
|Stinking Hellebore||(Helleborus Foetid us)|
|Indian Pink||(Spigelia Maryl.andica)|
No particular quantities were specified, but fortunately it was advised that the mixture be followed by a shot of castor oil, for without it the patient would surely have departed to the happy hunting ground. There was another old-fashioned worm eradicator which I never would have used; it took the form of a bolus containing a pre-chewed quid of tobacco wrapped in brown toilet paper and smeared with butter.
I thought myself a pretty good dog doctor and had a lot to say on the subject. My mother, who was a very gentle person, only once remonstrated with me. “I really don’t mind what you and your steady stream of animals do around the house,” she said, “but could you please not talk about worms at breakfast?”
My father claimed that I toed in when I was a little girl and gave me the name of Duckfoot. I daresay that I did walk like an Indian, but I was able to cover a lot of ground very fast. He took pleasure in teaching me to cast a pretty fly and to use a rifle and shotgun with proper respect. I looked forward to these lessons, for he was such an expert that even the great gunsmith Purdy turned to him for advice on intricate problems. He loved poetry, and throwing himself back in a big leather chair, would recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and yards of Kipling from memory. “Mandalay” and “If” were not exactly the fare for a child, but I listened with appreciation to the ringing stanzas. One of his favorites was “The Power of the Dog”:
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone — wherever it goes — for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.
But even Mr. Kipling’s warning did not prevent me from doing that very thing, time and time again. However much my father might have known about guns, there was one sphere of which he was completely ignorant. He delighted in combing my hair, but his hands that were so deft otherwise were too strong for this delicate undertaking. I was so flattered by his attention that I never cried “Ouch” when he dragged the comb through my curls and brought tears of pain to my eyes. If he called, “Duckfoot, come here,” I went running, because he kept a box of peppermint candies on his bureau and would pop one into my mouth if I closed my eyes and clasped my hands tightly behind my back. He always added “This is for a good girl,” and I went off about the business of caring for his dogs with a feeling of warm contentment.