A Little Less Canine Composure

The rude winds of November have brought down a diversity of mid-sized branches in the park. The rangers let them lie. Nature isn't tidy; why should park rangers be?

Or there could be another reason - that the rangers are fond of retrievers and labradors. To such as these of the canine kingdom, the fallen branches are a gift. In the absence of shooting parties in this wooded city enclave and a consequent supply of fell-swooped pheasants to softly grasp in the muzzle and bring to their owners' feet, these pedigree breeds are generally on the lookout for substitute material to carry between their teeth. Branches are just the ticket.

As a mongrel-loving man, I can't grasp the sanity of this inbred blundering through undergrowth with branch in the mouth, and neither can our mongrel dog. His philosophy is: Carry a bone or nothing. At least a bone has a point to it.

In fact, I have known Wolf, salivating with anticipation, to carry a large bone from walk-start to walk-end - though he is quite happy for me to carry it for him, or even to hide it in a hedge bottom to be rediscovered later. But I think I catch him sometimes looking askance at the daft frolics of multiple gatherings of identical black or "golden" dogs. What on earth do they think they are up to? Have you ever watched them? They even run after balls and bring them back! What sort of alien creatures are they?

Just being silly is not exactly Wolf's line. His origins and upbringing are unknown to us - we "rescued" him, as they say - but it seems likely that his puppyhood was somewhat humorless and caperless. Whomever he lived with never fostered or stimulated his innate playfulness, and by the time he came to live here, this natural propensity had become latent to the point of invisibility. His purpose in life seems to have been to chase cats - and not so he and the cats could roll about laughing afterward.

We have worked at his sense of humor, however, and now - at last - I can report some progress. It amazes us that he could have lived with us this many moons and not become winsomely frivolous like us.

Not that he didn't try to accommodate our wishes. But you could see it took some thoughtful concentration and went right against the grain.

Example: Dog owners, coming home after some hours out, usually expect their dogs to leap out of their day-bed in a display of over-the-top affection and rapture. Not Wolf. He just lies there looking indifferent, as if to say: Why have you been so long? What about my mealtimes? What about my walk times?

But then, gradually, he began (sometimes) to get up and stretch when we arrived home. Then to the stretch he added a kind of elongated squeaky yawn. Even the tail might wag a bit.

And then - and this still happens chiefly before the last walk at night - inklings of playfulness inched their way to the surface. These showed themselves first in head-butting. He launches himself at your legs and pushes the crown of his cranium hard at you. This battering-ram effect we took to be his shy attempt at having fun. But it was awkward, clumsy, and somewhat of a token gesture. It was if he were saying, "OK, OK, is this the sort of nonsense you've been wanting from me? Look - I'm doing my best - but really I don't get it. It's some kind of humanoid ritual, is it?"

But the head-butting has proved the thin end of the wedge, and today his capacity for absurdity and dottiness is more wide open than ever before. Today he will chase me round the central kitchen unit one way, and I will chase him round the other, and we do it again and again with ever-heightening craftiness and zeal.

Then he will rush at me, making as if to head-butt, but what he really likes is for my legs to change into a bridge at the last moment, so that instead of smacking into me, he charges on through without hindrance. He turns and asks for more. He pretends it is a wonderful surprise and an endless delight every time it is repeated. We can do this quite a number of times before he loses interest.

In fact, I believe that he is no longer pretending to enjoy these bouts of play. I think he has genuinely shed his sense of dignity and replaced it with a much more engaging sense of "dognity." And I think he is rather pleased with himself about this.

But we still have to convince him about balls and branches. And maybe we won't even try. We don't want him to get commonplace and predictable like those clowns in the park.

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