Camp Wood, Texas
We were driving down 337 between Leakey and Camp Wood shortly after sunset. With my sweetheart Maggie May (a white Labrador Retriever) in the passenger seat, we were taking in the beauty of Nueces Canyon at the prettiest time of the day. As is usual in the early evening, the road was lined with deer grazing on the shorter grass at the edge of the woods and Maggie was fascinated. Her head swiveled left to right as she watched them go by. The deer, in return, watched her intently.
As we slowed and entered town, the deer disappeared and now she started to see other dogs—dogs in yards or out for walks with their people. She watched them as we drove past, sometimes even beating me with her massive tail and letting out a little whimper to let me know she wanted to stop and play. I turned onto Nueces Street to head toward the Boots and Buckles Club, the little bar I had come into town to visit. But as I turned, we passed a woman out walking two Chihuahuas. My previously mild-mannered Maggie went absolutely bonkers, barking wildly, jumping around and sliming the car window with dog snot. It was not a pretty sight. But I understood. I stroked her chest until she calmed down and by the time we reached the bar, she was her old self again.
Real County is semi-dry. My first encounter with the place was when I was Rita-running in 2008. The county had just rescinded its total ban on alcohol sales and you could buy packaged beer in convenience stores and gas stations only. But even today, beer and liquor by the drink is only available in “private clubs.” Boots and Buckles is just one such “club.” To drink, you must purchase a membership and sign the members’ book. The cost is one dollar and that is refunded on your first drink.
Maggie seems to enjoy it there; the bartender gives her slices of cheese so it is one of her favorite places to go. Best of all, dogs don’t have to buy memberships—she drinks free. The management understands the importance of our canine friends. When a restaurant or bar welcomes dogs, they welcome me.
For most of my life, my best friends have been dogs. I’m guessing it is because we think alike and truly understand each other. Probably most important, I have a tremendous amount of respect for them as individuals, and they seem to return the compliment. I learned long ago that my dogs understand English but I don’t understand Dog. It’s not hard to figure out who is the smart one here.
I also learned that once you and your dog get to be close friends, all you have to do is sit down and have a talk. If you let a dog know what you want, he will go out of his way to please you.
But sometimes you have to be willing to compromise just a bit. A number of years ago I was teaching Koty, another Lab, hand signs I wanted to use in our communications. We already had a good verbal communication, but I wanted to be able to talk privately, without others understanding what was going on between us, and hand signals seemed to be the perfect answer. It was going well. He followed all the signs I suggested but one. I tried to teach him that when I tapped my chest, it meant to come. Instead, he insisted that sign would mean he stands up, puts his front paws on my shoulders and we hug. I tried for weeks to change that, but he’d have nothing of it. He was adamant—that sign means, “let’s hug” and I just needed to learn to deal with it. A short time later, he taught me that pointing a finger to the ground in front of me would be our sign for “come.” With mutual respect, we successfully negotiated what would become our non-verbal communication system for the next 12 years.
I’m not sure if dogs can read our minds, but at times they certainly seem to know what we are thinking. If I think for even a second about hiking the trails in the woods, Maggie gets all excited and starts hopping, rocking horse style, all the way to the Jeep. I’ve learned to be careful what I think when she is around.
Probably the thing I am most impressed with about dogs, though, is that they have very refined senses of morality and etiquette. There are rules they set, and that are followed almost universally by dogs around the world. Emily Poodle could have written a large volume on Dog Etiquette. It appears they learn these rules from other dogs. For example, if they are lying on the floor and have a toy or bone in front of them, it is theirs. For another dog to try to take it is an inexcusable breech of etiquette. It just doesn’t happen.
If a dog places a paw, or worse, his whole body, on top of another dog, that is a terribly rude show of arrogance and the dog underneath never appreciates it. And no polite dog would ever stick his nose into another dog’s food dish while he is trying to eat. I’m sure we all have noticed that a puppy is most easily housebroken when he lives with an adult dog who can show him the acceptable places to do his business.
Puppies are allowed some leeway on all of the etiquette rules of course, but only for so long. Once they reach a certain age, expectations are raised and breeches of etiquette are met with growls. If that doesn’t stop the behavior, a snap of the teeth greets the little guy until he learns that you just don’t do those kinds of things in polite dog society.
But no matter how polite most dogs are, I guess it goes without saying that, like most species, there are a few individuals that chose to ignore the rules. Chihuahuas are famously ill mannered; small man syndrome, I think. As a result, most other dogs hate Chihuahuas and freely display their contempt. As we drove down Nueces Street, my sweet, mild-mannered Maggie made her opinion of those two little dogs quite clear.
I think we are a lot like dogs in many ways. In many more ways, we have a lot to learn from them. They are loyal, loving, forgiving, accepting and possess all of the other traits that we are told we should strive for in becoming better people. They show us what we are all supposed to be. In essence, they are our best role models.
After all, there is a reason we call this amazing creature “Dog.” He is the reflection of God on earth.