“What kind of dog is he?”
Naturally, every dog owner thinks that her dog is the most beautiful canine on the planet. And I’m no exception, of course. But I must say, with all humility, that Foxy was a dog who got noticed and admired. A lot. We would be walking down the street, and people would literally stop in their tracks, even pull over their cars and roll down their windows, to ask me what kind of dog he was. “Is he a chow?” “Is he a sled dog?” “Is he a Samoyed? I didn’t know they came in brown.” “He’s beautiful. Is he a purebred?” Clearly, we could not continue to appear in public without my providing a suitable answer.
Foxy was not the first dog I’d loved and lived with, and I was fairly well acquainted with dog breeds. But now that I had a new dog in my life, I had a good excuse to go out and buy dog books. I bought a book showing all the official breeds, with photos, descriptions, histories, and conformation specs according to the American Kennel Club. I studied his appearance, comparing his body, personality and life interests, shall we say, to those of various breeds. I examined other dogs, on the page and in person, looking for similar traits. I began to form my own theory of Foxy’s parentage, but still I wasn’t quite certain. More research was clearly needed, and I found the perfect place for it, somewhat by accident.
One of the best places to take Foxy for some serious obedience training and off-leash running was an old cemetery near my house. I’m not sure how many acres this cemetery covers, but I measured the paved path that ran around it with my car odometer, and it came out to a mile. It’s like a small wildlife refuge, set far back from the road, spreading alongside the Saugatucket River. It’s full of large old trees, marshland, and fields of marsh grass, cattails, wildflowers and tall silvery pampas grass. A stream runs off one of the river dams, and woods are tucked along various corners, with a nearby trail that passes a farm. Within and along its borders, it provides a home to birds, voles, rabbits, squirrels, waterfowl, and other assorted critters. It’s a safe and popular place for dogs and their people to run and ramble, stroll and chat and make new friends. It turned out that Foxy already knew most of the dogs we met there. This was where he had met Amiga, and, evidently, practically every other dog and dog owner in town. It was, therefore, where Foxy had likely spent a great deal of those six months when he was a stray, romping with his dog pals, hunting his next meal, and apparently acquiring a sympathetic reputation among the humans, most of whom recognized him and were universally glad he’d been adopted.
Not only did I make lots of new friends, but I got to compare Foxy against other dog breeds up close and personal. And the same conclusive comparisons kept recurring. The few times he met a rough-coated chow chow, it was instantly clear that he owed a great deal to that breed. He had the somewhat straight hind legs and prancing gait of a chow. The front part of his tongue was pink, but darkened to black under his palate, which was visible when he yawned. Like the chow, he was medium sized, though a little taller, at just over 21″ at his withers, and not as broad in the beam. The characteristics that parted company from the chow were a little more challenging to suss out, but again, face to face meetings told the indisputable tale. Whenever we ran into a purebred Siberian husky, there was no mistaking the fact that, if you gave Foxy a haircut and white highlights, he would be its twin brother. Like the husky, he was fleet and agile, with prick ears and expressive eyes, and carried the weight and height of a small husky, another medium sized dog which runs from 20 to 23″ at the withers, and can weigh anywhere from 35 to 60 pounds. Perhaps the most telling evidence was the instant kindred recognition that occurred between Foxy and every Siberian, Samoyed or husky mix we met, as if those shared sled dog muscles twitched in mutual pack anticipation of a good mush. These mutual vibes happened with virtually every Nordic dog we met, and there would directly ensue a lot of exuberant leaping and scampering, followed by enthusiastic wrestling matches that would leave both Foxy and his new Nordic pal soaked with dog saliva. Actual snow was a bonus, but was strictly optional. If there happened to be some lying around, it might help wash off some of the dog slop, but it might just as likely add a layer of mud to the general canine dishevelment. It also necessitated a dog bath and a thorough vacuuming of one’s car. But these are the sacrifices a dog owner willingly makes to facilitate her dog’s social life. And I was as certain as I could be that Foxy was in essence a Siberian Husky in a Chow Chow coat.
As the snow melted and the crocuses emerged, the cemetery yielded a few more insights into Foxy’s past. One early spring day, donning a lighter jacket for the first time, I filled my pockets as usual with liver snaps, hopped in the car with Foxy, and drove to the cemetery in the bright morning sun. Our training sessions were proceeding fairly well, and I had high hopes of a productive session. Foxy was, from the moment he set foot in my house, a remarkably well-behaved dog. Despite his dubious first year of life, which included his abandonment by his previous owners and his six months on the loose, he was amazingly free of bad habits. He was housebroken from day one. He did not steal food off the table, but waited with eager dignity while I filled his dish each night. He did not raid the garbage or chew up my shoes or knock over my house plants. He seemed to accept that I was the pack leader in the house, and he repaid my stewardship by alerting me to strangers at the door. However, this is not to say that he was completely receptive to the concept of obedience. As a child, my parents had let me adopt a Border Collie puppy when I was ten years old, and after trolling the local library for dog training books, I soon had Jim-Jim doing everything I asked of him and then some, ignorant of the fact that Border Collies are the high princes of obedience training. Thus did I conclude that I was a brilliant dog trainer, and it was years before I learned that Jim-Jim might have held the larger portion of brilliance in our relationship.
In any event, by the time Foxy came along, I knew that I could hardly expect to repeat my childhood success, but I was not a novice. I was fully prepared to be persistent. And consistent. And firm but gentle. And armed with liver treats. In short, I had all the requisite tools to train a dog of Foxy’s obvious intelligence. However, he was a Nordic dog, and Nordic dogs are not Golden Retrievers. Or Labs. Or Poodles. They do not necessarily play catch. They do not slavishly retrieve tennis balls. They are more than happy to run after tennis balls if they can persuade you to throw one. But once they find the tennis ball, they are likely to run past it or around it or away from it, leaving you to do the retrieving. Nordic breeds have been bred to think for themselves. Ask any musher, and they will all tell you that their lives depend on their dogs. To the degree that their dogs depend on them, it is more in the nature of the way that rock stars rely on their roadies to haul their equipment and supplies and occasionally bail them out of jail. And not unlike rock stars, Siberian Huskies in particular retain a certain sociable but distinct wildness, a deep-rooted acquaintance with their wolf ancestry, which gives them a resilience and independence that is admirable, but does not lend itself to the finer points of dog obedience. Indeed, I was somewhat dismayed to read of both Chows and Huskies the following caveats: “This breed is notoriously difficult to train and [is] generally not well suited for [the first-time dog] owner…[The breed] will require a trainer to prove [her] leadership before taking direction. They do not like to be told what to do.”  Oh, dear…
However, never one to shirk a challenge, I remained undeterred. And if Foxy was not quite as malleable as I’d have liked, I was receptive to learning how to work with his independence. I parked the car in my regular space on the paved path, and let Foxy streak off to one of his favorite spots. His first destination on this particular morning was a large marshy area along one section of the riverbank. Liver treats at the ready, I ambled patiently along the edge of the marsh, as Foxy disappeared among the reeds. In less than a minute, he emerged, with a large, wet animal hanging from his jaws, and proceeded to trot briskly away from me to a field on the opposite side of the cemetery.
One of the lessons I learned that day is that a recently-deceased, wet muskrat does not look nearly as presentable as the one in this photo. Muskrats up close look like beavers with thick rat tails. They are rather large, about two feet long from nose to tail-tip, with long, yellow, buck teeth and the ugliest tail I’ve ever seen. You would never think of adopting a muskrat as a pet. After meeting one in the flesh, you would be forever astonished that anyone ever thought of wearing their fur. After abandoning me to my mute stupefaction, Foxy put a good hundred feet between us, laid down, and began to field dress his lunch. Obviously, this was not the first time he had bagged a muskrat. He had undoubtedly perfected the technique of the quick kill, which involved clamping his prey round its neck, then shaking it vigorously to break its spine, thus killing it with dispatch. In those first moments, I admit I was awed, philosophical, horrified, perplexed and a little frightened all at once. At that point, Foxy had only been living with me for about two months, and I think that was the first time I began to fully appreciate the choice he continued to make each day to stay with me at all, to share my home, to agree to the ancient and primordial bargain made by the first wolf that accepted the companionship of a human. And I felt profoundly humbled and not a little redundant.
But I also had no idea if he still planned to come home with me that day. Clearly, he had not yet concluded that he might share his catch with me. He kept his distance, ignoring me but for a wary glance now and then, as he systematically skinned and gutted his kill. A monumental test of our bond was at hand, and in order for both of us to pass it, I must proceed with cautious faith in him. I dug my hands into my pockets, palming some treats, and averted my gaze as I walked slowly and carefully, steering an oblique path that would take me far enough from him to avoid spooking him, but close enough for me to toss some treats about twenty feet from where he lay, hoping I could entice him from his main course with a few appetizers. I tossed the first two treats in silence, to see if he would notice. He did. As I tossed the third and fourth, I called his name gently but crisply, “Foxy! Treat!” with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. By the fourth treat, he stopped working on the carcass and looked for where the treat had landed. I held my breath and tossed another. “Foxy! Treat!!” He sat up and looked at me. I tossed another. “Treat, Foxy!” At last, he rose to his feet and trotted over to where the liver snaps lay scattered. “Good boy, Foxy!” I said as I began to walk toward him. “Foxy!” I repeated, holding a treat in the air. He looked at me. “Foxy, sit!” I commanded. He sat. I walked closer. “Good boy!! Foxy, down!” I said, lowering my palm in front of me. He laid down. “Good boy!!” I said, tossing him a treat. “Foxy, stay!” He stayed. “Oh, what a good boy, Foxy!” I said, crouching to give him his treat. Heck, I gave him five treats. “Good boy,” I told him, relieved, rubbing his soft ears and clipping the leash on his collar. He sat up and grinned, licking my hand in his continental, gentlemanly way. I hugged him, tearing up a little. “Good boy, Foxy, sweet boy,” I crooned. “Let’s go home.” And, sans muskrat, we did.
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