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Born to Bark

My Adventures with an Irrepressible and Unforgettable Dog
By Stanley Coren

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CHAPTER 1
FIRST MEMORIES


For Christmas the woman who would become my wife bought me a dog—a little terrier. The next year her Christmas gift to me was a shotgun. Most of the people in my family believe that those two gifts were not unrelated.

The dog’s name was Flint. He was an oversized Cairn terrier, mostly gray with black pricked ears and a black mask. Weighing about 23 pounds and standing something over 13 inches at the shoulder, he looked for all the world like a jumbo version of Toto in the original film version of The Wizard of Oz. For thirteen years he was my dearly beloved companion, and for thirteen years he and my wife were at war with each other.

I was trained as a researcher and a psychologist; however, Flint was a key that unlocked for me a way of looking at canine behavior and human relationships with dogs. Some people consider me to be an expert on dog behavior and the bond that humans have with their dogs. If the opinion of those people is correct, then I must admit that my primary education came from growing up around dogs and watching and interacting with them. My university-level education came from my research and study of the scientific literature on how dogs think, but my postgraduate training was the result of living with Flint. It was Flint who taught me how to watch dogs and the reactions that they cause in the human world that they live in. He also introduced me to the world of “Dog People,” some of whom may be fanatical, loony, and misguided, but most of whom are empathetic, caring, and dedicated to their canine companions. Many of these Dog People became my friends and the source of much of the pleasure that I have experienced over the years.

My life’s activities are divided between two different environments. The first is the ordered and structured world of the university, scientific research, data, and research publications. It is a world populated with many staid, serious, and predictable people and equally predictable and structured situations. My other living space is the chaotic world of dogs, dog training, and dog competitions. This world is populated by dog owners, trainers, handlers, judges, and competitors, many with strange or unique ideas. It is also filled with dogs of every variety and temperament, some well trained, steady, and friendly, and others that have been allowed basically to run wild in their human habitat. The canine universe seems to be driven more by emotions than logic, so apparently random things may happen. As Flint soon taught me, often the best response to such unpredictable events is a sense of humor. Going back and forth between these two worlds is much like looking at a Hollywood feature film where the director is trying to give you a glimpse of the workings of the mind of a schizophrenic, alternating between ordered reality and delusional fantasy.

Flint became a part of both of those lives. He soon showed me that I had a lot more to learn about dogs and that there were some clear holes in my knowledge of how dogs think. However, there were even more holes in my understanding of the nature of the bond that humans have with dogs—or, as in my wife’s case, the bond we may not have with a particular dog.

Let me start by giving you a bit of history about myself before that canine whirlwind arrived on the scene. Dogs have been the signposts that have marked the various stages in my life’s journey. For as long as I can remember there was always a dog in my home. The first dog of my memory is a beagle named Skipper, but there was at least one dog earlier than that. I have seen photos of me rolling around on the ground with Rex, who was a husky-type dog, either a Malamute or a Siberian husky. If we can read anything from the few photos we had, I dearly loved that dog and, according to my mother, he adored me. One photograph provides some evidence of why our bond was so strong. In it I am sitting next to Rex and I am happily chewing on a dog biscuit. My mother claimed that in that photo Rex was looking at me with great love and affection, but it appears to me that he was looking at the dog treat and hoping that something edible was about to happen for him.

One day, when I was around eight or nine years of age, my mother and her sister, my Aunt Sylvia, were having coffee together and looking at some old family snapshots. As they sat chatting and laughing at the black-and-white images, the page turned to reveal that particular picture of Rex and me. Sylvia was appalled.

“Chesna, that is disgusting!” my aunt said, and immediately went into the lecturing mode that she used when she felt that she needed to instruct someone and bring them to her own moral and intellectual high ground, “Stanley is chewing on a dog biscuit. It’s unsanitary. It’s unhealthy! It’s nearly child abuse!”

“Sylvia, it’s just a dog biscuit,” my mother gently replied. “The first time I gave Stan a biscuit to give to Rex, he started to chew on it himself. I don’t think that he much liked the taste, but he liked the fact that Rex would hang around him until he finally gave him what remained of the treat. After that, Stan wouldn’t go anyplace without a dog treat in his pocket, and Rex would never be more than an arm’s length away from him. That’s what saved Stanley’s life.”

During the early years of World War II, just after my father, Ben, had earned his officer’s commission, he had been assigned to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where we lived in a mostly military community just outside the gates of the camp. It was sort of rural, and the place we rented was pretty bare and run-down, but it did have a little fenced yard where Rex and I could play. My mother was inside doing the wash one day when she heard me give a frightened shout, followed by angry sounds from Rex. When she ran out of the house she found me hiding behind Rex who was barking and growling at a “nasty-looking snake, pink and black and orange, making hissing and buzzing sounds.” Rex had defensively put himself between me and the snake. My mother shouted for us to get back and as soon as she could, she pulled me away. Meanwhile, Rex dived at the snake and caught it in the middle of its body, but it swung around and bit him on the face. Rex yelped and dropped it and then grabbed its neck and snapped it up and down. When it stopped moving, Rex looked a bit dazed and blood was oozing from puncture wounds on his face.

My mother’s shouts and Rex’s barking attracted the attention of our next-door neighbor, who came running out to help. She was from Georgia and recognized the snake as a copperhead rattlesnake, which is poisonous but not as bad as a cottonmouth or some others, although such snakes can certainly kill a young child or dog. Fortunately, she knew what to do about Rex’s wounds. She made a little X-shaped cut over each of the bite holes and squeezed them until there was a good flow of blood that helped drain the poison. Afterward, Rex was pretty sick and his face swelled up, but he pulled through.

As my mother looked at the photo, she recalled that Rex and I had acted as if we were glued together, and that I had used those dog treats that I always had with me as rewards, managing to teach Rex dozens of different words and several tricks.

When my father left with the troops to go to Europe, my mother began to pack our belongings to go back to her family in Philadelphia. Shortly before we left, a driver lost control of his Jeep and hit Rex, who died on our front lawn. My mother looked across the room to where I was sitting and told me, “You took it pretty hard. You kept kissing Rex’s face and telling him to wake up. For the next few weeks you insisted on taking a dog biscuit to bed with you because you said that Rex would expect it to be there when he came home.”

My mother told me the story of Rex only that one time, but it hurt me a great deal. Here was a dog who had loved me so much that he had nearly given his life for me, and I had no memory of him, no matter how hard I tried to recall the events. In fact, the only evidence that I had that he had ever lived was in a couple of small, faded black-and-white photos. It is difficult to imagine that I might never have survived to live the rest of my life if it had not been for an unremembered dog who had stayed close to me in the hopes of getting an occasional bit of dog treat, and whom I had clearly cherished.

My first personal memories of a dog are all about Skipper, a beagle. He arrived in my life after we were back in Philadelphia, the war was over, and my father was home. I don’t remember Skippy as a puppy. In my mind he was always a full-sized beagle who loved to snuggle and run. Mostly he loved to sniff things, and he had enough strength and traction so that when he was on leash he could drag my light young body over to any target he needed to explore. I always carried around bits of food with me that I could use to reward Skipper to get him to do the things that I wanted him to. A typical beagle, Skipper was not particularly trainable, but he was sweet and social and willing to curl up next to me while I read, worked, or slept. I loved him dearly, in spite of my having been bitten by a rabid dog not too long before Skipper joined our family.

When I was growing up, dogs were not commonly being vaccinated, rabies was a greatly feared disease, and dog bites were the most usual means of transmission. Rabies symptoms include partial paralysis, an inability to speak or swallow, and psychological deterioration with confusion, anxiety, agitation, paranoia, hallucinations, bouts of hostility, and delirium. Without treatment, and once the symptoms show themselves, rabies is one hundred percent fatal within 2 to 10 days. Death by rabies is quite ugly and excruciatingly painful. Before 1885, the year when Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux first successfully cured a victim bitten by a rabid dog, the most common treatment for human rabies was euthanasia—doctors or close family members actually smothered the patient with a pillow, which was considered to be much kinder than allowing him to suffer an agonizing death from the disease.

Thankfully, when I was bitten, a treatment was available for the disease, but that treatment was itself painful and traumatic. I had gone to visit my Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Alex and my cousins who had rented a house for the summer in Atlantic City. Only one day into my holiday, I was approaching a dog with my hand out to pet it when it bit me. Although it hurt, my principal emotion at the time was surprise, since dogs had always responded well to me and I’d never been bitten before. Someone grabbed me and lifted me off the ground and away from the dog while someone else grabbed the dog by the collar, dragged it away, and locked it into another yard behind a gate.

The dog was believed to be rabid, and treatment—a series of horribly painful shots—was started immediately. The shots were given with a wide-bore needle (which looked like a lance to my young eyes) and injected directly into the abdominal muscles with no anesthetic. I came to dread the sight of the doctor and his needle, and left his office shaking and sobbing, pleading with my mother and aunt not to take me back for the next injection. Everybody in the family was in a state of panic, but after the fifth and last shot, since I wasn’t showing any symptoms, they knew that I would survive.

A colleague who is a clinical psychologist has told me that, given the pain involved in that treatment process, I should have been left with persistent posttraumatic stress–related symptoms that should appear whenever I am around dogs. It would be reasonable to expect that I would have a lifelong fear of dogs, but I have no fear or negative residual feelings for dogs because the dog hurt me a little bit and just once, while the doctors hurt me a lot, and many times. As a result I have been left with a lifelong discomfort associated with doctors and hospitals.

At the time that I had Skippy, we were living in West Philadelphia, in a duplex, where my family lived upstairs and my mother’s parents, Jake and Lena, lived downstairs. My grandmother was a significant influence when I was growing up. Since both of my parents were working, that meant that except for weekends I got to see my parents for only a few hours at night and in the morning, so my grandmother was my primary caretaker. In the early evenings I would curl up in my grandparents’ living room next to the large radio, which was our principal form of entertainment. This radio was a big piece of furniture, a floor model that stood about 4 feet high. Skipper would curl up beside me as I listened to the three radio programs that I loved: Superman, The Lone Ranger, and Lassie. Of the three, Lassie was my favorite.

The Lassie radio adventures were true to the spirit of the original Eric Knight story, in which Lassie was clearly a dog, not a human in a fur coat. Lassie never spoke human language, but simply barked. Pal, the dog who played Lassie in the original movies, also did the barking on the radio show, but listeners were never told that the whining, panting, snarling, and growling were all convincingly done by a human actor named Earl Keen.

Each episode involved Lassie playing a different dog in a different setting and situation. The show had a certain magical charm about it because of the dog’s intelligence, emotion, and dedication. Virtually every episode also demonstrated that somehow we humans could understand and communicate with dogs. Lassie did not speak English, Spanish, German, French, or any other human tongue, but her family and everybody who heard her understood her completely, nonetheless. In one episode Lassie’s barking could mean that a child was hurt and in need of rescue, in another that the house was on fire, or even “Your mother still loves you and wants you to come home.”

I would listen carefully, trying to work out the nuances of the barks, without great success. I was jealous of Lassie’s family and neighbors, who could all understand the language of dogs and knew how to make their dog understand exactly what they were saying as well. While I sat next to the big radio fondling Skippy’s long, flannel-textured ears and feeling linguistically inept, I began to form a resolve. I would learn how to talk to dogs and understand what they were saying in return.

I got a head start in my attempts to learn all I could about dogs because my mother believed that it was possible to teach children how to read at a very young age and that such early literacy would give me an educational advantage. So she spent several hours each Saturday and Sunday morning teaching me how to read. I loved it and began to read everything I could lay my hands on. Well before my sixth birthday I could read at a third-grade level. This turned out to be fortunate, since my mother was now pregnant with my brother Dennis and our weekend mornings spent improving my reading ability were becoming shorter and less frequent.

In a sort of enlightened self-interest, my mother next arranged for me to get my own library card at the Cobbs Creek Parkway branch of the Philadelphia Public Library. Anticipating that her time with me would be radically more limited with the arrival of the new baby, she knew that, if I had an interesting book to read, I would tend to hide in a corner and pore over it, my dog beside me, rather than hanging around getting underfoot. I used that library card quite a bit, and by the time I was 7 or 8 years old I had read every book on dogs, wild animals, biology, and science that was in its tiny children’s collection. I also often read them aloud to Skipper, trying to imitate the instructional tones that my mother and first-grade teacher used when teaching. Sometimes, if it was a good story, I would try to read it dramatically, changing my voice according to what I thought the people in the book might sound like. My grandparents or my parents would occasionally walk into the room while I was doing one of my melodramatic readings for the dog and smile or stop for a few minutes to watch and listen, but they never interrupted me or commented.

It was a good time in my life, until Skipper disappeared. I now know that Skippy had contracted canine distemper, a viral disease that is almost always fatal. There is no treatment for it, although now there are effective vaccines to prevent it. Even if there had been a treatment for distemper, however, my family had so little money then that sometimes adequate food for the humans could not be assured. My parents would rather have died than to have sought financial help if that meant that people would look upon us as being poor and unable to make it on our own. So if our dog became sick, home remedies were all that we could afford to offer, and if they didn’t work, the dog was simply lost.

Distemper is a virulent disease and the symptoms are ugly, with vomiting, diarrhea, discharge from the nose, red eyes, shivering, convulsions, and breathing difficulties. When a dog contracts it, the disease escalates rapidly and death often comes quickly. My parents had decided that this would be too gruesome and traumatic for me to see, since they remembered how hard it had been for me to deal with the loss of Rex. They thought that they were doing something kind when they secretly moved Skipper to the basement, next to the coal furnace where he would be warm but out of sight. They then told me that someone had accidentally left the door open and Skipper had run out and was now lost.

Today, I know that my parents were trying to ease my pain, but at the psychological level it was the worst thing that they could have said to a child. Death, especially by disease, is not something that carries with it feelings of shame, failure, or desertion. Individuals do not choose to die, and their passing away does not make a statement about those who they leave behind. Abandonment is something else. The idea that my dog had run away when I thought that he loved me and I cared for him so dearly meant that I had personally failed that dog. It meant that I had not communicated to him how important he was—that I was to blame for his deciding that he did not want to live with me any longer.

When my parents put me to bed that night, I was crying. As soon as they put out the light I dressed myself again and left the house. I was going to find Skipper and let him know that I loved him. I was going to bring him home where we could be together again, and I would never do anything to make my dearest friend unhappy. The police found me wandering the streets calling for Skippy at around 3 A.M. When I was finally brought back home my parents were nearly hysterical with worry.

By the next night my parents had spoken to someone who apparently explained to them what might be going on in my head. So my father and my mother tried to tell me that Skippy had gotten very sick and died. They tried to reassure me that it was not my fault and he had not run away. They told me that the only reason they had lied to me was that they didn’t want me to see my dog looking so awfully sick. I didn’t believe them but thought that they were now lying to try to make me feel better, rather than letting me face the horrible truth that I had inadequately understood and loved my dog, and he had left me for those reasons. Truth is a powerful weapon, but only if it is the first shot fired. I had built armor against it by then, and my pain and doubt about Skipper would not be washed away by later explanations.

My mother seemed to know that something further had to be done to lift me out of my grief. So she took the day off from work and had me help her clean the house with some especially nasty-smelling cleaner that was dissolved in water. She explained to me that it was a disinfectant and that we had to disinfect the house so that we could bring another dog into the house and the germs from Skipper’s disease would not hurt our new dog.

I still didn’t believe her. “We can’t have a new dog,” I protested. “When Skippy comes back and finds a new dog he’ll think that I don’t love him and don’t want him.”

My mother knelt down beside me and quietly said, “Skippy is not coming back because he can’t. He died. He is with God now, and he will wait for you. Because he loves you and knows that you loved him, he also knows that you need another dog as a friend. He wouldn’t want his germs to hurt that new dog. So we are going to make our home clean and safe for dogs. First, we will kill all of the germs with this disinfectant, and then we will air the house out for a couple of days. After that, we will see if there is another dog in the world that God wants you to have, since he has Skipper as his own pet for now.”

It sounded like the truth and only cleaning up after a disease could justify using such awful smelly stuff to wash the floors and walls. It was then that I finally began to believe that Skipper was really dead. I turned to the bucket with its malodorous disinfectant solution and began to damp mop every surface of the house that I could reach—no other dog was going to die in that house if I could help it. I cleaned everything so vigorously that I could barely lift my arms at the end of the day. That night I fell asleep dreaming of God sitting on a white throne, with Skippy curled up next to his foot. Skipper was still my dog; he hadn’t run away from me because I wasn’t kind to him. I was sad, but God was a good person whom I could trust to take care of my dog until I got to be with him again.

My mother clearly had a plan for me, because on Saturday morning she took me to the library, pushing the baby stroller that contained my brother Dennis. On the way she explained to me that if and when we got a new dog, it would be a puppy and I would have to learn how to take care of it and to train it. I would have to learn what I needed to know by reading books about dogs.

We bumped the stroller up the library steps and entered through the big double set of doors. The high-ceilinged familiar space was filled with dark wooden bookshelves, and I took in that subtle smell of books that I had come to love. Near the doors was the circulation counter and next to it a few desks for the librarians. There were three alcoves off of the main area. The small one to the right was the children’s section, which I was very well acquainted with since it was the only one that I was allowed to go into with the green library card that was issued to kids. My mother didn’t even glance in that direction but went to the counter and placed my library card down on it.

“I’d like to upgrade my son’s library card to a regular one,” she said.

The librarian was a thin older lady with glasses and gray hair pulled back into a bun. She recognized me from my twice weekly visits to the library and gave me a slight smile, and then turned to my mother.

“How old is he?” she asked.

“Eight.”

“A child must be twelve years old before we can let them use the adult section.”

“He can read well enough to use the adult books,” my mother said quietly, “and he needs material that is not in the children’s collection. For example, there are no books in the children’s section on dog care or training.”

“Well, why don’t you just take those books out on your card and let him read them?”

My mother sighed slightly. “I work and can’t make it here very often. He needs to be able to select the books that have the information that he is looking for and take them out on his own.”

“Some of that material in the main section is very difficult to read for a child, and some books on the open shelves contain inappropriate material for someone his age.”

“You can test his reading skills right now if you like, and I will give you or anyone else on the library staff the right to prevent him from taking out books with unsuitable material in them.”

The librarian hesitated, then leaned down and asked me, “So, you like dogs?”

I nodded. She pulled over her desk chair, motioned for me to sit down, and walked away. A few moments later she reappeared carrying a book with the title Bruce and a picture of a collie on the cover. It was a novel by Albert Payson Terhune, a writer who had died a few years before and was best known for his fictional adventures of collies, the breed that he truly loved. She opened the book to the first chapter and randomly pointed at a paragraph and said, “Start reading here. Out loud, please.”

It was like reading to Skipper, which I had done so many times before. I adopted my best oratorical voice and began.

“Her ‘pedigree name’ was Rothsay Lass. She was a collie—daintily fragile of build, sensitive of nostril, furrily tawny of coat. Her ancestry was as flawless as any in Burke’s Peerage.

“If God had sent her into the world with a pair of tulip ears and with a shade less width of brain-space she might have been cherished and coddled as a potential bench-show winner, and in time might even have won immortality by the title of ‘CHAMPION Rothsay Lass.’

“But her ears pricked rebelliously upward, like those of her earliest ancestors, the wolves …”

I was caught up in the story virtually from the moment that I began and went on reading with my attention glued to the page in front of me. I had no idea what my mother and the librarian were doing until the librarian tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s okay for now. We need you to sign your name right here on your library card.”

That tan-colored card was my key to rest of the library collection. The library did not have a big collection of books on dogs even in the main area, but there was a book on puppies and another on general dog care, which I checked out along with the Albert Payson Terhune novel that had served as my reading test. Over the next year or so I would ultimately read every dog book that Terhune had ever written. Like the dogs in the books by Eric Knight, who wrote about Lassie, Terhune’s dogs were intelligent, empathetic, and courageous, but they were not “cartoon” dogs that could talk. Like real dogs they reasoned and acted in response to circumstances. Because of those books my dreams were often filled with beautiful collies, and my ambitions included not only understanding more about dogs, but perhaps someday writing about dogs.

I read the book on puppies and the book on dog care several times. Meanwhile, I checked each morning and on my return from school each day to see if there was another dog in the world that “God wanted me to have” who might have arrived when I was asleep or away from home.

© 2010 SC Psychological Enterprises, Ltd.

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