“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ~ Roger Caras
January after the holidays and the dead of winter has settled in. Why do they call it the dead of winter? It seems to be alive and thriving. It’s not even on life support. Dead or not we’ve had a healthy amount of rainfall and there’s been a California chill in the air. It’s important to attach that note about California because what constitutes a chill here in the Bay Area is a balmy reprieve from the bite of a frigid nor’easter. To the hardy residents from the mountains to Maine we Californians are America’s weather wimps. Well someone has to fill that role so it might as well be us.
All the rain has turned much of the yard into a swamp until Spring, meaning the dogs, my Lexi and my daughter’s Chloe, are under strict restriction from playing in the yard. Chloe is older and is satisfied with a nice walk. Lexi is still a pup and needs some serious energy burn. The dog park in nearby Martinez dries out in a few days and Lexi gets some much needed running and jumping in the short windows between dry or tolerably muddy and a downright bog. Dog park days mean romps with her friends; the regular dogs who greet each other with the ritual butt sniffs (“Oh yeah, I recognize you. You’re cool”), wagging tails and excited twirls. On those days when they don’t get an excursion, cabin fever sets in. After a few straight days of rain the fever is runs high.
At this time of year the winter sun sails low over the western hills that partially shelter our end of the little valley. We’re at the upper reaches and get more sun than those farther down the hill. During these months those down the slope only enjoy a small sip of sun if that.
This afternoon its clear and the sun’s beating down with as much winter muscle that it can muster in mid-January. I’m enjoying the front porch sun in a bright yellow wooden deck chair reading a book about Abe Lincoln. Lexi’s laying down next to my chair savoring the semi-warmth of the pavement, her black coat drinking in the weak rays of winter sun.
We’re in one of those moments that only a dog owner understands, that quiet, wordless connection, the shared intimacy between man and gentle beast. Maybe I should temper that gentle beast thing. She can be such as on this particular afternoon or in the evening when she knows it’s coming on to bedtime. At not quite two years old though she can be a sock stealing, counter surfing, couch hopping, jumping rowdy hellion who at a moment’s notice can get a case of the zoomies (For the uninitiated zoomies are those burst of manic energy that has a dog running around madly, heedless of the danger of slamming into obstacles or people). Today, at this moment, it’s just quiet relaxation. I reach down and lightly touch her head. She looks back at me lazily, “Yes? What do you want?”
Now she’s pointed toward the hills, savoring the sun. At times she closes her eyes in lazed bliss.
At any time though, bliss can be shattered. A sudden perking of the ears and her head snaps around. Her nose twitches. Something’s caught her attention; something clearly out of sight.
She’s alert, head swiveling like a turret, nose constantly twitching, a processor analyzing and cataloguing scents that on my best day I couldn’t remotely detect. Her nose continues to twitch, her head turning constantly, ears on the alert. I set Lincoln aside to watch a marvel of nature at work, the magical mystery of a dog’s sense of smell.
An article I’d read compared a human’s sense of smell to the olfactory might of a dog and concluded that a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 more acute than that of humans. “Let’s suppose they’re just 10,000 times better,” says James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, who, with several colleagues, came up with that jaw-dropping estimate during a rigorously designed, oft-cited study. “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.” (Source: Nova Dogs’ Dazzling Sense of Smell)
Watching the concentration and the alertness I realize just how important it is for her to spend time outdoors even if it isn’t rollicking in the park.
While this afternoon on the front porch doesn’t substitute for the physical activity of running around in the park it’s a sensory stimulation that beats being confined to the house. During those hours of cabin fever she shuts down; sluggish, dead to the world and disinterested, waiting for something to do. Look at her eyes, wide open and unfocused. She might lay down in a spot of cloud filtered sun that slips weakly through the front window and then she’ll follow that spot as it travels around the floor until it’s gone with the setting sun. Now and then she walks to the sliding glass door asking to go out, stick her nose out in the storm and looks at me as if to say, “Oh hell no.” Then she might trot to the front door as if the rain is only falling on one side of the house. She looks up, “You mean it rains on BOTH sides of the house?”
Back on the front porch some birds land on the patches of what’s left of our front lawn bringing her partially to her feet, nose forward and twitching, hardened body quivering, tail out and alert. Lexi’s a Gordon Setter, first bred in Scotland with a history that dates back to the 17th century and described as “the black avenger of the Highlands, a substantial bird dog named for a Scottish aristocrat. Athletic and outdoorsy, Gordons are bold, confident, and resolute in the field, and sweetly affectionate by the fireside… and built to withstand their homeland’s tough terrain and foul weather.”
So Lexi is a hunter by trade; gun dogs they’re called. Her craft is to find birds in the field and point. Her tools are her nose, eyes, stamina and a boundless desire to please her human. But it’s the nose that’s the primary tool and her skill in putting it to work comes from an instinct hardwired into her through centuries of breeding and heredity. I don’t hunt and haven’t in over forty years. Killing a bird just going about its birdy business just isn’t in me.
The birds flit, Lexi jumps to her feet, lunges to the end of her leash and looks back as if imploring me to let her give chase. “Sorry girl,” I tell her, “you chase those birds into the hills and you’ll be lost for good and coyote bait.”
She glances to where the birds were, satisfied or maybe disappointed that they’re gone and then comes back to the warm stones and curls up beside me as I reach for Lincoln. We exchange glances and then go back to our respective delights, reading and sniffing and enjoying each other’s company.
Glancing from my book I see that in a most un-avenger like manner she’s crossed her legs like a genteel little lady.
“You know, a dog can snap you out of any kind of bad mood that you’re in faster than you can think of.” - Jill Abramson