My dog is stuck on sticks

Stepping out from the house today I almost tripped on a branch for the umpteenth time. But I've learned, finally, to watch my step when I exit. Ever since our young hound Alice became obsessed with sticks a few months ago she has taken to planting a ready supply around thresholds. She lurks out there, waiting for one of us.

I've known a number of dogs who enjoy a good, rollicking toss-and-fetch relationship with sticks.

Alice is not one of them.

She is dedicated to serious tug-of-war combat over them and she pesters potential adversaries as only a hound can. Often enough it's me at the other end of her well-gnawed treasures. She tugs with all of her lithe young strength as I resolutely pull back. Her eyes narrow, intensify, and dance. Her tautly muscled body writhes to and fro as she strives to wrest the prize from my clutches.

We cover a lot of ground this way, between house and barn, and out and about the near pastures, tugging and pulling and growling at one another. I am admittedly a soft touch for any animal with a streak of creative fanaticism.

Alice is a comely mixture of orange and white, her markings nowhere more appealing than on the back of her sleek snowy neck where paired apostrophe-like dots of color seem to bracket her head - as if such a quirky and mercurial personality could be contained in quotes. The mere sight of those punctuation marks melts me even when I am most fed up with the relentless game she wages.

"No, Alice! I'm sick of playing stick" I insist, ignoring her laser-intense eyes, the challenge she has just snatched from the kindling pile locked in her jaws.

This seems only to encourage her. She clips the back of my legs with the stick as she races ahead of me down the path, quotes dancing, then turns and shamelessly works her evocative eyebrows in a language all their own: "Grab it! Just try! C'mon!"

Of course I do and on we go with yanking gait until I (inevitably) concede defeat and she leaps away in triumph - only to whirl back again with fresh hope for a new round. It can get old fast, but the game is not without its entertainments for me, especially between heats. The dog is something to behold, sailing about with her longer prizes, tipping her head left and right to avoid their crashing into trees and fence posts. When the stick of the day happens to be an entire limb, she knows how to balance the end that is not in her jaws on her back, twisting her head around and running with one eye front and center. She's well worth watching.

Still, a walk is more peaceful without all that going on. And so, when I set out the other day for the forested back of our farm, where deer trails lead to inlets of our local lake, I deliberately waited until Alice was preoccupied with something other than a stick before leaving. She never even saw me go.

I'd walked about a mile, across the two stream valleys and well up into the woods when a vacuumlike whoosh of air and an orangy blur announced her headlong arrival. I knew she'd track and insist on joining me, but at least I'd had 20 minutes of stretching my legs without having my arms wrenched half from their sockets. Now, here she was, ears and tail at quivering attention, tongue hanging. Surrounded by more tug-of-war ammunition than even a stick-crazed dog could pick up in a lifetime. For once, though, she didn't grab one.

Maybe it was the sheer abundance of sticks there in the forest. How to choose just one? She might have sensed the challenge posed by maneuvering among closely spaced trees and tangles of brush with extra baggage. Maybe it was the dampening effect that superabundance has on desire, or, heaven help us, a need to take a break herself from the rigors of this competition.

We had a lovely walk to the lake and back. Today, when I headed down to the barn to feed the cows, Alice lost no time finding a stick and brandishing it against my legs, her eyes at once pleading and defiant. Time-out was over.

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