Challenge on four feet

Nick, The-German-Shepherd-With-a-Mind-of-His-Own, arrived last spring and ever since he has been showing me things in the landscape I didn't know were there.

I think I have a fairly keen eye. When I walk the dusty road around the lake, I can spot a distant Baltimore oriole teetering on a cattail in a marsh or a tiny goldfinch flitting among the poplars. I can discern the tracks of raccoons and deer and spot morels (mushrooms, that is).

But when I walk with Nick, I see what I have overlooked. The grassy ditches along the road look like grassy ditches to me, but to him they are the source of further treasures. He darts in and pulls out a glove here, a T-shirt there, and paper cups from everywhere. Also broken sunglasses, one Nike shoe, an unopened bag of potato chips, a rubber fin, numerous tin cans, aluminum foil, a mildewed pillow, a 1978 license plate, a tennis ball and every shape and size of plastic or paper wrapper, especially from candy bars. He favors Almond Joy.

Nick comes away from these forays looking smug. I come away looking like the trash collector.

You can imagine that with the Mighty Hunter on a leash, I am not exactly walking the straight and narrow. We zig here and zag there. We walk sedately and then suddenly plunge into underbrush.

While there isn't time to gaze skyward for birds, I do see a few. Nick once flushed a partridge. It rocked Nick back on his heels. I cheered the partridge.

Once Nick flushed some berry pickers. They were startled. So was I. I never dreamed there were people crouching behind the wild raspberry bushes. One of them wore a camouflage hat from an Army Surplus store. He sure fooled me, but not Nick.

And once, sorry to say, Nick flushed a skunk. Nick's popularity zoomed to zero and the local store had a run on tomato juice, considered a prime deodorizer for dogs who flush skunks.

I've had a lot of company since Nick came. Neighbors knock at my door. They stop when they see me raking leaves. They aren't coming to get acquainted. They're coming to ask if I'm the owner of ''that German shepherd.'' My standard answer now is: ''Yes, if you think he's cute. No, if he's done something bad.''

It's a mixed bag. Nick lifted a little girl's shoes from the porch where she had left them. The father hated to complain ''but you know how much shoes cost these days.'' I found out when I replaced them.

But the people who stopped this morning, think Nick is adorable.

''Adorable?'' I asked.

''Yes,'' the woman said. ''He comes every morning at 10.''

''Oh, so that's where he goes every morning at 10?''

''Yes,'' she said. ''He comes for his liver sausage.''

You know how, when you brag about your kids to guests, the little darlings suddenly turn into monsters? Nick is like that.

I had just bragged to guests that I was on chapter three of a dog obedience book and that Nick would now sit and stay on command. I proceeded to demonstrate. Nick not only didn't sit and stay, he leaped on the guests and knocked over their soft drinks. When he was banished to the yard, he barked endlessly and dug a hole in the driveway big enough to drop a cement block into, which is what I had to do to get out of the drive.

Nick is smart. He knows that when he has done something bad, he is in for a scolding. He doesn't wait. The minute I appear, he makes a mad dash for the perfect escape. He runs down the path to the lake and as far into the water as he can go before having to swim. Then he turns around and watches me as if to say, ''Ha, ha,'' because he knows I won't follow, though it's an awful temptation. Just wait until summer when the water warms up again. I'll get him!

Don't get me wrong. Nick is wonderful company and I'm told he'll grow up some day and stop chewing the dresser drawers, the newspapers, the piano bench, and the bathroom rug.

Meanwhile, some of Nick's fans are coming to visit. They are ages seven, eight, and eleven. They have just seen an old Rin Tin Tin movie of that famous police dog who scaled walls, caught crooks single-handedly (single-mouthedly?) and rescued their victims.

The children say Rin Tin Tin gave them some ideas of things to teach Nick to do. I have news for them. Either they keep their ideas to themselves or they take Nick home with them and let him scale theirm walls.

Meanwhile, back to chapter one -- ''sit.''

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