Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Opinion — Dog Day Years, Me And The Cajun Cur

In all the mysteries I’ve written, only two of the characters are real. Some are an amalgam of people; but usually even if I intend to steal the soul of a living being as grist for the mill, the characters take over and, in the end, they possess only the slightest traces of the original DNA.

The two who are real appear in the Shanahan mysteries. Einstein the cat, whom I’ve mentioned before and Casey, the dog. Neither of them solves murders, nor do they talk. They do not engage in super heroics. They are who they are. They keep the old private eye company. (And he is not me — I am not him?.) I mentioned Einstein in an earlier post along with his alleged murderous past. This post, though, is about Casey, who has been in all ten Shanahan mystery novels. Everything I’ve ever said about him is, or could easily be, true.

Casey and I became close friends and housemates. We got along very well after an initial period of adjustment. He arrived one early spring morning. It was Saint Patrick’s Day. The strange, not quite fully–grown, spotted and flecked dog sat in a patch of sun on my lawn. A good friend had arrived days earlier to spend the summer at my place to rest from his world travels and create art. We noticed the dog as we left to pick up some groceries, figuring he belonged to someone in the neighborhood and that he would have moved on by the time we came back. We were gone a couple of hours. He was still there when we returned. And he was still there as the afternoon rolled into evening and the spot of sun where he rested was gone.

We approached to make sure he was all right. He looked up calmly as if he was expecting us. All he had to do was wait and we would come around.

“I’ll get him some water,” my friend said. The dog, incidentally without a collar or tags, was all right. He was alert and friendly. He followed us through the gate into the inner yard. That, of course, was the beginning of the occupation — a sort of houseguest who never left, who never intended to leave. The dog, later named Casey, had determined — probably well before we did — that he was home.

His meeting with Einstein, who had been with me at least ten years by then, wasn’t as bad as it could have been. After the cat provided a few uppercuts to the curious dog’s jaw, Casey gave Einstein the respect and distance the cat thought was appropriate. As the days progressed, it was clear that the dog was house-trained and that he was an incredible infielder, snagging rough hops of the tennis ball with incredible ease and bringing the ball back to me again and again, for as long as I cared to throw it.

I took him to the vet, where he was given various shots and a good health report. What kind of dog was he, I asked the vet. “Some kind of hound, I’d guess,” he said. There was a hunting dog look to him. A Blue Tick Hound, I thought, but Casey seemed stouter and sturdier. His ears were shorter. His coloring was also puzzling. He didn’t just have spots, but big patches of color and tiny flecks all in brown-gold, black, gray, and white, all irregularly placed on his 65-pound frame. The idea that he was a hound mix seemed right. I found out he howled like a hound when sirens were near. With the proper coaxing he and I would sing a duet. It was the Casey who had to be coaxed. There was no “America’s Got Talent” then. Otherwise we would have been that homely couple singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”

What isn’t always understood by those who live without a close relationship to other species is that we humans are not the only beings with complicated natures. At the other extreme, my older brother believes that animals are superior to humans. I disagree. I pretty much think that we are all equal. That doesn’t mean we are the same. I cannot discern thousands of different smells and even if I could I doubt if I could make sense of them. I can’t catch a tennis ball in my mouth. On the other hand, I can open a can of dog food. Opposable thumbs. And while this may disturb dog lovers, in truth I’ve met dogs I don’t like, just as I’ve met humans I could do without. And there are dogs and humans here and there who have taken an immediate dislike to me.

But Casey and I got along very well pretty much from the beginning.

He had a sense of humor. Many times he would hang around while I dressed in the morning. And quite often, waiting until I was balancing on one leg to put my pants on, he would give me a forceful nudge. I swear I could see him smile as I toppled.

He hated baths. I would have to pick him up, his back to my chest and my arms wrapped around his chest. As we approached the bathroom doorway, he would push his legs straight out, paws on the doorframe, preventing me from getting him through. I eventually won the struggle. Afterward, he seemed to appreciate it.

He was jealous. Attempting to nudge Einstein off my lap usually met with severe resistance from the cat. That didn’t keep him from trying. And I was not permitted to pet other dogs. If I did I put their health and safety in jeopardy.

He was also sneaky. In the early days, not wanting to keep him all cramped up inside during the summer while I was at work, I’d leave him outside during the daylight hours. He always had water and there were plenty of trees to get shade or shelter. I thought I was doing him a favor. I had no idea how big a favor it was.

One day I got a call at work. It was from the vet. Casey was seen racing around on the Butler University campus a few blocks away from where we lived. Someone had taken the trouble to retrieve the doctor’s number from the dog tags and reported Casey’s no doubt carefree excursion. I excused myself from work and drove to Butler. I spent hours trying to find Casey, driving around the neighborhood. No luck. When I got back to the house, there was Casey, inside the fence, wagging his tail enthusiastically, welcoming me home just as he always did. The gate was shut. All was normal.

What I didn’t know was that Casey was a climber. He climbed the fence every day after I left for work, wandered around the neighborhood, and returned home before I did, always showing his happiness at my arrival.

Casey and Einstein moved to San Francisco with me. We moved into a small apartment. Casey’s wandering days were over. It wasn’t just the adjustment to urban living. He was getting older. Even before we moved, the green, smelly tennis ball — one he could find in a blizzard — had lost its allure. Now, as a city dweller, taking Casey for a walk became a regular routine. One day we passed a man sitting out on the steps in front of his house.

“You got yourself a Catahoula,” the man said. He had an accent that I couldn’t identify. It sounded like a cross between Brooklyn and the Deep South.

“A what?” I asked. I had no idea what he meant.

“Catahoula. Your dog is a Catahoula.”

I nodded and Casey and I kept walking. I was pretty sure the man was about to spin a tall and perhaps long tale about cats and hulas. Usually I listen, but I must have been in a hurry. I moved on.

The name “Catahoula” stuck in my brain. I still suspected it was a joke, but during a trip to the bookstore I came across a huge book about dogs. It boasted that it was the most comprehensive book of breeds ever published. I thumbed through it. And there was Casey. A Catahoula, also called a “leopard dog.” The breed, as it turns out, is the state dog of Louisiana.

Casey never lorded his newly found proper breeding over me. He remained humble. If he had ever been too uppity, I would have reminded him that he was a “cur” after all, not even a hound. But the Catahoula was recognized as a breed, one favored as a hunting companion by Jim Bowie, who lived in Louisiana’s Catahoula Parish, and Teddy Roosevelt, when he went after wild boar. The point is that Casey and I remained great friends throughout our ten years plus of living together. Our worlds overlapped easily. Though, it was obvious to me that from time to time, Casey lived in a world very different from mine, or any human’s. I doubt if we’ll ever know exactly what that world is like.

However there is a book I’d like to recommend to dog lovers. Author Alexandra Horowitz wrote a fantastic attempt at knowing: Inside Of A Dog, What Dogs See, Smell and Know. It’s well worth reading if you want to know more about your dog’s mind.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: (top) Casey the Catahoula in front of the house he chose to live in. (bottom) A highly recommended book about the mind of dogs

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Dog Walking Frisco said...
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