Dog Tails-- er, Tales.

The house was always a menagerie while I was growing up. My mother couldn't turn away an animal. Several times, we had neighborhood people ring the doorbell to ask if a kitten wandering around stray was ours. If it wasn't before, it was now. The minimum complement was two cats and two dogs, plus any small caged critters we had lying about, but it ranged much higher than that at times -- one of the cats escaped for the night before we could get her into the spay/neuter clinic, and we briefly had ten of them, before the babies were weaned and re-homed.

Have you ever been in a house with ten cats? It's an adventure. My father had to check his size 13 work boots every morning before putting them on, in case a kitten had decided to nap inside.

The dogs were generally fewer in number, but made up for it in mass. Right around the time I was born, my parents had a dog named Yeti. It was apt. He was half Lab, half husky, with mismatched eyes, and completely indestructible. He was hit by a car, not once, but twice. Dented both cars, wandered away confused but unscathed both times. He got into so many alarming things that my mother made the local vet teach her how to perform CPR on a dog, just in case. (You hold their muzzle closed with one hand and blow air in through their nose. You're welcome.) He ate shoes, books, furniture, a full bottle of prescription-strength folic acid tablets, and a tube of superglue, with no apparent ill effects. The only thing that ever fazed this dog was the time he ate an entire baggie of weed. He was distressed to find that every time he tried to lift his leg to pee, he fell right over into the snow.

We couldn't take Yeti with us when we moved to Arizona, so my parents found him another home. He became the mascot of the local volunteer fire department. Which, honestly, is probably the correct place for a dog who loves everyone, fears nothing, and is too stupid to notice when he's just had a near-death experience.

One of the first things my parents did when they bought the house in Phoenix, naturally, was get another large dog. Saturn was half golden retriever, half springer spaniel, and somehow ended up all-black. Not too long after that, we went down to the animal shelter and picked out a smaller accessory dog, Tootsie, whose lineage we never did figure out, other than noting that he didn't shed giant clumps of his coat every summer like the rest of them did, and was therefore probably part poodle.

The two of them were inordinately clever dogs, and spent many years engaged in an extended battle of wits over dinner. The dogs got fed after the humans did, on the tile floor in the kitchen to minimize the mess. Saturn snorked everything down so fast I'm convinced that the dog never tasted a single thing we fed her, but Tootsie was a fussy little thing who actually chewed his kibble, and got through perhaps half of his meal by the time the other dog was down to licking imaginary food molecules off the sides of her dish. At first he'd just walk away when he was done, but he soon realized that meant that the other dog would finish his food, and of course that was just not on -- that was his dinner, and he didn't want her to have it, even if he couldn't stuff it all down himself. So he took to camping in the kitchen, guarding half a bowl of dry dog food, until my mother came back through to pick up the drool-covered leftovers.

Saturn one-upped him by hiding. When she'd finished her food, she'd trot off and go sit on the other side of the counter bar, where Tootsie couldn't see her. Once he thought she was gone, he'd abandon his food to go hang out in the living room with the humans, and she'd swoop in and inhale whatever he'd left. It worked for a while, but eventually Tootsie twigged and wouldn't leave the kitchen if he saw her sneak off around the edge of the counter. So Saturn started sneaking off the other way, and hiding in the dining room instead. And when Tootsie noticed that, she started trotting all the way around the corner, through the dining room, and into the living room, where she could look through the sliding glass patio doors, through the window panels in the kitchen door, and past the edge of the breakfast bar, and see the moment when the smaller dog got tired of guarding his food and wandered off.

Tootsie enjoyed being taught tricks, which my sister used to take full advantage of. She was in the habit of taking her shoes off when she got home from school and then just abandoning them in the living room for other people to trip over. We complained at her constantly, but it made no difference; rather than stoop to cleaning up her own damn footwear, she just trained Tootsie to pick them up one by one and carry them back to her room whenever he wanted her attention. The dog eventually generalized this to other things, which came in handy the time my sister's hamster somehow managed to get out of its exercise ball while rolling around the back patio. We were about to mount what we suspected would be a futile rodent-hunt when the dog trotted up and politely deposited a small, terrified, drool-encrusted, but completely unharmed hamster at my sister's feet -- 'excuse me, I think you lost this, do I get a cookie now?'

When I was in high school, we had a long-haired St. Bernard. No, I don't know who thought it was a great idea to breed Alpine rescue dogs in the Sonoran Desert, but I bet they were dropped on their head a lot as a kid. We had to take her to a professional groomer every summer, because you can't use regular dog clippers on Newfoundlands and Newfie mixes -- you need sheep shears, which are a bit much for amateurs. The cow spots don't go all the way down, if you're curious. She was all of a color when shaved.

Chessie was very sweet, but she had four enormous snowshoe feet, and did not have four brain cells to run them with. There was a fence around the backyard but not specifically around the pool, so we walked all of the dogs into the water a few times to make sure they could find the stairs and get themselves back on land if they ever fell in. Not all of them liked swimming, but they could all doggie paddle their way to the exit -- except Chessie. She had absolutely no idea what to do with her feet. She just sank like a rock, back end first, in this state of sad, pitiful confusion. We eventually gave up trying to teach her and just prayed that if she ever did wind up in the water, she would panic enough to accidentally flail herself over to the edge.

Chessie also vehemently did not want to be in charge of anything, ever. She took orders from Tootsie, who was a pernickety little old man by the time she came around. We kept a giant communal water bowl for all the animals in the kitchen, and if someone else was there when she went to get a drink, Chessie would queue up, this giant slobbery behemoth of a dog looming timidly over a single housecat, waiting for her turn.

She was also convinced that all of the furniture had some sort of Aura of Protection From Dog on it. If she were chasing one of the cats around the backyard, and the cat jumped up onto one of the deck chairs, she would stop absolutely dead and stand there dancing anxiously from foot to foot, trying to get him to pleeeeeease come doooooooown because she couldn't geeeeeeeeet him there. The cat -- who was all of four inches away from her, exactly at dog nose level, with no actual protection whatsoever -- would just sit down and calmly start washing his unmentionables while the dog tied herself in knots. One of the cats discovered that this even worked if he "hid" under a Shaker end table, which had no skirt and was completely open all the way up to the underside of the drawer, and -- as this particular cat was a lazy 20lb slab of Himalayan -- under which only the front half of the cat fit.

The cats did, however, learn to be careful when they were hunting the dot from a laser pointer. Chessie was the only dog who ever paid attention to it. I don't even know how she could see the thing; when she looked straight down, her entire face slipped forward. There are few things funnier than watching a St Bernard lumber around the house at top speed, trying to whomp the laserbug with her feet. DOG-HULK SMASH. The cats eventually learned that was safer to stick to chasing the dot up the wall.

Last I was there, my parents had a Labrador retriever named Jupiter, and a smaller dog of indeterminate origin named Maggie, who, judging from her vocalizations, is either part beagle or part foghorn. Her howl can not only wake the dead, but prompt them to file noise complaints. Both of them are mildly insane. Jupiter is excited about everything. Toys! Yay! Bath! Yahoo! Medication! Yippee! He had to have his dewclaws off when he was young, and he was so thrilled by the anti-chew cone that when he was all healed up and it came off, he went berserk trying to get my mother to put it back on again. NO THOSE ARE MY CLOTHES YOU GIVE THEM BACK. My parents bought him one of those sleigh-bell elf collars one Christmas and he got so attached to it that he ran whenever he thought anyone was going to take it away. Maggie eventually saved the rest of the house from creeping insanity by cuddling up to Jupiter and calmly chewing every last goddamn bell off of the thing, so he would stop jingling loudly whenever he fidgeted.

Jupiter is also too stupid to notice that he isn't invulnerable, but it's okay, because Maggie is neurotic and panics enough for both of them. I was helping my mother herd them to the groomer's once when Jupiter helpfully demonstrated that she'd forgotten to engage the child locks on the back doors by opening the window and falling out. Fortunately, we were in a parking lot going 5mph, so aside from a bit of road rash, no real harm done. Jupiter was in fact perfectly fine, all happy tail-wags and excitement, until my mother slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car, and went running back to get him, at which point he realized she was upset over something and became confused. Nobody else in the parking lot was aware that there was a free Lab dancing around on the pavement, wondering why his mommy was distressed; they were all staring at the car, because as soon as Jupiter went AWOL, Maggie had begun scrambling around in the cargo compartment, making the kinds of noises one might expect out of an emotionally-compromised ambulance siren, and could probably be heard in the next subdivision over.