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  • September 6th, 2019

SPACE DOG

By Joel M. Vance

 

I have a good photo of the Hooded Wonder but my computer has defeated me and I can’t figure out how to insert it into the blog. Perhaps Matty doesn’t want to be seen and has called upon her alien brethren to block me from showing her. Maybe she’s in the canine witness protection program. The truth is out there.

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Mattie Vance can’t help it if she looks as if she is communicating with aliens from a different galaxy. Perhaps she is. Who knows what mysterious signals eddy through a dog’s brain, especially one who is, in human equivalency, 87 years old. That makes her roughly a couple of years older than I am and even I don’t understand what mysterious signals eddy through my brain, much less Mattie’s.

 

I’ve been trying to figure out dog thinking for at least half a century and can’t come close to tuning in on the canine wavelength.  I have decided that dogs think in two dimensions— yesterday and today. You have only to appear in hunting clothes for a bird dog to begin leaping in joy, certain that it is destined for a hunting trip, in other words summoning memory of past joyous times. The dog is thinking of yesterday and reacting today, but has no concept of tomorrow. Which is a good thing considering that dogs rarely if ever watch the news on television and thus cannot become as depressed as the rest of us.

 

The reason Mattie looks oddly unlike your normal dog is that she is wearing a plastic cone that looks like some sort of satellite receiver, designed to intercept signals from Out There. As we know from many episodes of “The X Files”  “The truth is out there.”  Fox Mulder would take one look at Mattie and exclaim “See! I tried to tell you!”

 

Mattie is a French Brittany with a checkered history. The reason she is wearing a plastic cone is to keep her and her kennel mates from licking a row of stitches on her right front leg where she somehow suffered a near amputation during a ramble on our 40 acres of woods which I thought were relatively free from canine antagonists wielding machetes.

 

Veterinarians seem to think that licking a wound is more damaging than a round of antibiotics. Of course there is a nagging thought that licking is free, whereas antibiotics create serious wounds in your wallet that can’t be cured by your dog licking it. I recall that once I made a joke in print about how I was financing our vet’s next vacation to an exotic location.  The next time I hauled the dog in for primary care, the vet chuckled and made reference to what I had written. At least I think he chuckled—it may have been a subdued snarl. He is long since retired, possibly to an exotic location.

 

To date, Mattie has endured more stitches than Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Only a week before her leg trauma, she visited our vet to have both ears sewed up after returning from a woodland jaunt with her ears in tatters. She didn’t even retrieve a dead rabbit that time, a feat she occasionally performed in her younger days. I suspect age has slowed her enough that she can’t run down small game like the Mattie of yore, but I also suspect that doesn’t stop her from trying.

 

The obvious solution is not to let Mattie run free in our woods, but that seems to be cruel since most of her every 24 hours is spent in one of four kennel runs or an attached house. The alternatives would be to accompany her on her walkabouts, or to equip her with an electronic collar which, in the words of one of my hunting buddies is equivalent to “Ma Bell— you reach out and touch someone.”

 

You must understand that Mattie is not an A-type of dog. In the kennel hierarchy she is at the bottom, gentle, refined, unassertive and a friend to all. She is in all ways, a lady. She is the Mrs. Doubtfire of animals. She is Andy Griffith’s Aunt Bea as portrayed by Frances Bavier (although my late dear friend, Mitch Jayne, who was one of the Darling Boys on the show, said that Aunt Bea, off camera, would snarl and cuss like a Parris island drill instructor.

 

So Mattie normally is as soft and cuddly and agreeable as a child’s sleepy time teddy bear.  But when she is hunting , she becomes as devotedly feral as a timber wolf. Once the hunt is on, she is all business and her focus is on nothing but the game. That trait possibly explains why she occasionally returns from walkabout looking as if she has just been crossways with a Bengal tiger.

 

Actually, her most memorable (in the sense of the sinking of the Titanic being memorable) mishap happened when we actually were accompanying her on an outing. My wife, Marty, and I were close behind her on the trail that circles our acreage when she veered around a cabin we built on the backside of the place. She was no more than 20 yards in front of us, but by the time we reached the corner of the cabin, she had vanished.

 

I immediately began to call for Mattie but there was no response, no sign of the little lady. I have discovered over more than four decades of consorting with French Brittanies, an extremely intelligent animal (sometimes, I’m forced to confess, smarter than I am) that they have a remarkable ability to become totally deaf when asked to do something they really don’t want to do— like respond to “come!” –If there is something more interesting occupying them. The same hearing-impaired animal, however, can hear the faint sound of food being prepared at distances that would confound the acute ears of a turkey gobbler, listening for the seductive yelp of a horny hen.

 

Mattie did not respond and I hustled to the boundary line fence beyond which was an extensive pasture that, as far as I could tell, did not contain a small brown and white bird dog. Perhaps this was evidence of her possible alien origin. Perhaps she had been lifted from the face of the earth by a hovering UFO and taken to Planet X like those abducted citizens in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The truth is out there. An intelligent dog, of which Mattie is one, has the ability to learn more than 100 words, a vocabulary at least half again as extensive as that of Donald J Trump. That same dog also has the ability to switch off its auditory receptors when it hears words such as its name plus “come!” if it is otherwise engaged in an activity not sanctioned by its master.

 

Mattie’s uncle Scruffy, as a Brittany barely out of the puppy stage, once pursued a covey of quail at least a half mile from us and only the keen ears of my son, Andy, able to pick up the faint beep of Scruffy’s locator collar, enabled us to track down the wayfaring animal. Scruffy later in life vanished for four days, seduced by the scent of a lovelorn female, wafting pheromones on the vagrant breezes— or so we theorized. Mattie, having been surgically sterilized, was not a victim of lustful deprivation. Perhaps she pursued a deer or a flushed wild turkey and, by the time the sight and scent of the pursued critter faded, she had lost track of her whereabouts and simply didn’t know how to get home. We will never know.

 

We continued on our walk and I shouted until my voice was hoarse, expecting in any moment for Mattie to reappear as she always had before. Her brother Cap, her lifelong running mate (named as a pup Captain Adventure for his proclivity to explore when all the other puppies in the litter were zonked out) dutifully trotted out of the woods and fell in with us and obediently returned to the kennel. Night came and no Mattie.

 

That was it—no Brittany of the Baskervilles, no Sherlock Holmes in or out of disguise to solve the Mystery of the Missing Mattie. We slept uneasily, waking in hopes that a bedraggled and repentant dog would be at our doorstep as Scruffy had after his orgiastic Odyssey. Morning came, but no dog did. What had happened to Mattie? I felt like Dr. Watson, perpetually bumfuzzled, hoping for the great detective to come up with a solution. Only we didn’t have a great detective, only me without a clue.

 

That was it for three days and we had essentially given up the hope of ever seeing our dear canine Mrs.  Doubtfire. Then, on the evening of the third day, I got a phone call from a stranger who asked if we were missing a brown and white Brittany. He had found Mattie, an obvious lost dog, more than five miles away as the crow (or errant Brittany) flies. She had somehow traversed cross-country and, in the process, crossed  at least one County Road and a busy US Highway.

 

In an ironic twist, she turned up at a gun shop where her rescuer found her, checked her collar, and called the telephone number engraved on it. I don’t think she chose a gun shop to select a new side by side shotgun for her bird hunting master.

 

When Scruffy returned from his romantic ramble, he lived up to his name—he was scruffy, hungry and thirsty, but he had the knowing gleam of experience in his eye. By contrast, when we recovered Mattie, she was fearful and timid as if scarcely daring to hope that we actually were who she prayed we were.  When she realized finally that we actually were her loved ones she leaped into the truck more than ready to abandon the gypsy life. We profusely thanked the good Samaritans who had rescued her and returned Mattie to the bosom of her family and to the safe confines of her dog run. While she may very well know more than 100 words, I don’t think my heartfelt advice of “Don’t do that again” cut much ice— but perhaps the copious petting and joyous hugging had some lasting effect on her.

 

A long long time ago when I was an indigent (or is that indignant?) sports editor I wrote what I thought was a clever and literary lead sentence on a story about the local high school team losing yet another game. I quoted what I thought was a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “the Raven” where the bird croaked (as I wrote it) “Not again Not again!” My wife, Marty, gently pointed out to me that Mr. Poe’s bird actually said, “Nevermore, Nevermore!”

 

It may be a reflection on the bookish education of sports page readers, but absolutely no one pointed out my mistake. However, it has become a family tradition, to shout “Not again, Not again!” when something unwanted happens. A couple of days ago, Marty and I went for a walk and we took the stitched up Conehead Mattie with us. I detoured into the house for no more than 30 seconds to get something or other. And when I returned…. No Mattie.

 

I shouted. “Not again! Not again!” Marty looked at me, as she has so many times over the years as if wondering “Where did I find this person?” I had visions of Mattie returning, covered in blood, and a trip to the vet for more stitches. But after many anxious minutes of me screaming “Mattie, come!” Frankendog ambled out of the prairie grass, her intergalactic receiver cone rattling against the big bluestem.

 

For the moment, all is well. Mattie lies at my feet and I gingerly scratch her stitched up ears. Another week and we can remove the cone. Presumably, by then the lacerated leg will have healed enough that Mattie can lick away to her heart’s content.

 

But sometimes, when we’re out for a walk (and me keeping a vigilant eye on her every move) I catch her glancing at the skies. Perhaps she is just looking at birds overhead—after all, she is a bird dog— but maybe, just maybe, she is receiving signals from outer space.

 

The truth is out there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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