A Different Kind of Fetch
by JF Perkins
See Jay. See Jay run. See Jay clamp his teeth on Hope’s neck.
We met Jay just before Thanksgiving 2008. I had just returned from a long bicycle tour with Elke the dog, riding in a Tail Wagon trailer, all the way down the Pacific Coast. While I was away, my not-yet-wife, Sharon, suffered the loss of her oldest dog and best friend, Austin. He was a saucy old Australian Shepherd who never missed a chance to play, made the navigational decisions on walks, and could show Einsteinian brilliance in his primary role as a food seeking missile. He passed away not long after I departed on my trip, and by the time I returned, Sharon was ready to find Austin’s spiritual successor.
Even exhausted from fifty days pedaling a bike, I understood her need. The very next day, Sharon and I drove over to Kennewick to meet a particular dog we had seen on the Out West Pet Rescue listings. They were having an adoption day at the local Petsmart, and we wanted to meet that dog. It’s a long drive out to Kennewick, but for a dog, it’s always worth the effort.
We met the dog in question, and spent some time getting acquainted, reluctantly deciding that the dog would not mix well with our motley blend of rescue personalities.
There’s Hunter, a black Aussie/Lab mix who inherited the pack leadership from Austin only weeks prior to that day. Let’s just say that “Leader” is not a good word to describe a dog whose basic reaction to any new stimulus is to hide behind Sharon’s legs as soon as possible. Then we have Hope, a purebred Chocolate Lab who was born with a cleft palate, and was not expected to make it. Sharon decided to care for her anyway, and ended up with seventy pounds of spastic love. I always say there are two kinds of Labs. First there are the mellow, gentle perfect family pet Labradors, and then there’s Hope. She’s not “Marley and Me” bad, but she can run laps of the entire living room without her paws ever touching the floor. And finally, there’s Elke, who is a Border Collie/Jack Russell mutt with all the obsessive compulsive disorder the combination implies. If she’s the only dog in the room, she is the sweetest dog on the planet. If not, there’s a good chance she is growling at someone with four legs. Hope is generally tolerant of her grumpy little sister, but has been known, after weeks of harassment, to – shall we say, make a strong demonstration of “enough is enough” on Elke’s pointy little stubborn head.
The dog we went to meet would never be able to survive in our canine environment, unless the dog could ride around in Sharon’s purse, which would have required a mighty big purse. Our eyes wandered to the other dogs on display, and we spent some more time meeting several of them. There’s a reason for the sales technique known as the “puppy dog close.” If we were suddenly gifted with Jon Katz’s farm in upstate New York, every last one of those dogs would have been stuffed in the back of a Subaru station wagon. We would spend the rest of days calling dogs by the wrong names.
“Hey, you! Yeah, you. No, not you. The one with the tail…”
Being limited to a regular old fenced yard, we had to be just a bit more choosy. We saw Jay in passing, and he caught our interest easily. He’s an Aussie mix of some variety. Our best guess is greyhound, due to his long, lean physique, his gentle nature, and his tendency to find a couch and hold it down with great regularity. From the Aussie side, he was blessed with supermodel eyes, one of them blue across the top half, which gives him a permanent twinkle, whether he means it or not. Jay carried himself with a certain spirit, an apparently deep confidence that led us to believe he could easily deal with our bossy girls and our chicken-hearted old man. On top of that, we just loved him from the first minute. He has a long face in front of those love-me eyes, and a pair of mid-sized ears that spend most of their time in a semi-flop that brings to mind the top half of a stop sign. All angles and long flowing lines. We signed the forms, paid the fee, and drove him home.
There’s a nervousness that comes with introducing a new member into the family, especially if Elke lives in the house. Maybe that’s what made the ride home feel twice as long as the ride out. In any case, we finally made it with our new baby who had spent most of the ride on his new mama’s lap. Yep, we spoil ‘em fast.
Well, the short version is that Jay lied. Our girls crushed whatever defiance he had in record time. Two years later, he only asserts himself in carefully prescribed situations that have been vetted by a committee of two. Namely Hope and Elke. Last year, we added another female member to the pack – and the committee. She’s a pure-bred Aussie named Luna who happened to be born deaf. Well, nobody told her. She took Elke’s bossiness, and Hope’s stubbornness, and raised them both by a thing we call “Queen of the Lunaverse.” Spoiled? You bet. In charge? Even more so.
Poor Jay doesn’t have a chance. He is a chatty boy, capable of creating long-winded combination of dog syllables into the canine equivalent of campaign speeches. Privately, I believe he is simply whining about the abuses under the female regime, and how Hope made him do this, and Elke made him do that, and Luna vetoed the whole thing and made him get off the couch so that she could leap over the top like some kind of fluffy tailless kangaroo with a silly grin on its face.
Dogs are context sensitive to a high degree. In the house, the rule of girl-committee law puts Jay at the bottom of the pack. Outside, Jay has his moment in the sun, both figuratively and literally. Let those carefully prescribed situations begin! You see, we play fetch around these parts. Lots of fetch. Tennis ball? Check. Big floppy rubber ball? Check. Random stick? Yep. Frisbee? Double check.
You may be thinking that Jay is a champion fetcher, but you’d be wrong. He couldn’t care less about what object is being hurled across the backyard. He plays defense.
Hope goes for the target like a runaway freight train, and Jay attempts to keep her from getting it by any means necessary. Occasionally, this results in a barking snap at the speckled boy hanging on her neck, but it never turns serious, simply because there’s no time for getting Jay off her neck when there’s fetching to be done. Once she gets the ball, Jay attempts to ride Hope back, by means of his wide open jaw atop her neck. For me, this triggers a whole lot of saying his name sternly, until he lets go and circles wide through the bushes, pretending he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. The Hope and Jay version of fetch is football. If Jay can block effectively, he wins. His rules, not mine.
If Elke goes for the fetchable, it’s a different sport. She’s small and quick, and weaves through the yard like a weasel on ten cups of coffee. Jay knows better than to actually touch her. She’ll retaliate with a razor sharp set of front teeth, and he knows it. Instead, he tries to match her move for move, never making contact, but always in the way. Her tolerance for this game, which she probably thinks is a denial of her exalted will, is not nearly as deep as Hope’s patience for having a neck thoroughly coated in dog spit. Jay knows this as well. That’s why he chooses his battles and only truly succeeds a few times each play session. When he does… Oh, when he does, the lupine grin on his face is enormous. He doesn’t even bother with the return trip. He simply struts around in the field of play, imagining the cheers of his adoring fans. The Elke and Jay version of fetch is basketball – in fast forward.
Luna and Jay play a different game altogether. If Luna is the target, Jay just knows better. He ensures that she has all the room in the world to make her catch and to pull off any extra style points she has in mind. He has even been known to block the other girls just to give Luna her space. I call this game… Golf.
If Hunter wants to fetch, well… Never mind. Hunter never wants to fetch. All that running around and things flying through the air just makes him nervous, and he’ll happily stand in Sharon’s shadow just in case a pack of dogs swoop by – or a UFO lands in the yard. Whichever is scarier.
Sometimes, when the planets are aligned, and whatever astrological signs that apply to fetching are in order, I’ll toss something Jay’s way, and a bolt of lightning will sizzle from the sky, and I will smell the ozone on the air, and Jay will catch it. Un-freaking-believable! And when that happens… Jay runs off with the toy clenched in his smiling teeth, in hopes that someone else will play defense for a change.
And the lupine grin on my face is enormous.