By Ed Martley
Dog Boy. That’s the sobriquet townspeople hung on me when I was about 10 years old, living in a little farm town in eastern South Dakota, roaming the streets and rural section lines with a two-dog assault force running ahead. My Mick was a tough little cocker mix, and the neighbor’s dog, Blackie, looked just like him and was every bit as tough.
Those two thugs and I had many adventures, all but one fading from my mind after the passage of some 70 years. And that is one of those ghastly occurrences which will never fade, no matter how I wish it.
We were about a mile out of town, me on my bike and the dogs running far ahead. I picked up a scent of skunk on the sultry air, and the further I rode, the stronger it got. Soon, I heard a muffled barking and growling beneath me. The dogs were in a culvert under the road — they had entered from both ends and had an enormous skunk trapped between them. The dogs were attacking from both sides and the luckless skunk, spraying for all it was worth, could not stop them. By now, as numb-nosed as the dogs, I crawled in to watch the battle. When the poor skunk gave up the ghost, the dogs lost interest and exited the culvert. I crawled in to retrieve their trophy.
It was a big skunk, heavy, magnificently marked. I had to show it to my folks. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to haul it home and finally used my belt to tie it to the handlebars. Off I went, wobbling back to town. About a block from home I began to feel dizzy, a half-block from home I felt sick, and a quarter-block from home tipped over and threw up on somebody’s lawn. I left the carcass right there, feeling somewhat better, and we made it the rest of the way. The three of us burst into the house and burst out just as quickly, propelled by the screams of my mother and an explosion of profanity from my ordinarily non-cussing father.
I had a number of dogs in succeeding years but then there was a long dry spell. I went off to college (they wouldn’t allow dogs in the dorms) and after a stint in the army, began a fifty-year career in the news business. I had some lovely Samoyeds but after their passage, my life became a dog desert. No dogs allowed in my rented lodgings. More years passed until I bought a house. It was a large house. I built myself a tiny apartment in the basement and rented out the upper level. Now I was the landlord, and I gave myself permission to get a dog. Much thought went into an acquisition, including seeking advice from my veterinarian friend, Charlie. “What kind of dog should I get?” I asked.
“Well,” Charlie advised, “you know a lot about dogs, why don’t you consider a Doberman.”
Until then, I had only seen one Doberman and that was years before. He was running, fast, across residential yards, floating over hedges separating the properties — it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. “But aren’t they kind of dangerous?” I asked Charlie.
“Don’t believe what you’ve heard,” Charlie said. “You’ll never love a dog like you’ll love a Dobie.”
By this time, I was living in western South Dakota, a land of rough, rolling prairie sullied only by a few scattered ranches. And, on one of these ranches, advised an ad in the local newspaper, was a litter of Dobie puppies. My little daughters and I jumped into the pickup, raced 20 miles across the prairie and pulled into a ranch yard where a big, black Doberman in full uniform stood, giving us “that look.” (Doberman people will know what I mean.)
I lived around farm dogs all my life and learned they are a surly lot. We were understandably hesitant to leave the safety of the truck — until a chicken strutted over to the dog and chased him away. Humph.
The owner escorted us into the immaculate basement where mother Angel lay with her litter of six-week-old puppies. Angel was a red — a big dog as slick and shiny as a seal. She was even bigger than dad Sid (the chicken dog.) Some of the pups ignored us, others were scrapping. We sat a long time, watching the fun, when one bright little fellow left the group and came over to inspect us. Not at all shy, he was delighted to meet us, giving each a sniff test. Thirty minutes later, the owners were richer by $90 and we were on the way home — the puppy crawling up my chest as I drove.
The moment we walked into the apartment, the puppy, whom we’d named Joey, began to grow. And grow. When I had to work, I left Joey alone in the apartment. I didn’t care if he wrecked the place — it was already a dump — so he was able to amuse himself by destroying a couch. And I mean destroying it. He ripped off all the fabric, leaving nothing but the some springs and the frame, which I cut up with a chain saw and threw out the window. Hey, it was my house.
Although we lived on the prairie, we were right on the edge of the Black Hills, where Joey and I ran in those mountains for years. He had a joke he loved to play when he was a puppy. He would run straight at you, full-tilt boogie at about 80 miles an hour, veering away at the last second. One time he misjudged, and 60 pounds of adolescent Doberman hit my eldest daughter, flattening her and knocking out her wind. She lay gasping for breath, flopping around like a beached carp.
He kept growing, slim at 90 pounds and tall enough that I could rest my knuckles on his back without bending my knees — and I am not short. Under his fur, he was a mass of tiny scars accumulated while running in the mountains, disregarding bushes and small trees in his path.
Force of nature that he was, there was another side to Joey. When the situation called for it, he could effect a rock-like calm, unshakeable no matter what mayhem was going on around him. This made him a welcome volunteer at the memory care unit of a local old-folks home. We would enter a room where about a dozen clients sat in wheelchairs. Most were very quiet, the outside world not piercing the veil of their disease. Except for that big dog standing patiently next to them. Invariably, they would rest a hand on his hairy back, and even though maintaining a blank stare, you knew something was getting through. Some clients who were slightly agitated became calm when touching Joey.
One of the workers at the facility told us that it is well known dogs can be a calming influence for people suffering any variety of maladies.
Joey lived out his allotted lifespan, crossing over the Rainbow Bridge at nearly 13 years of age.
By now I had remarried, claimed the whole house for ourselves, and decided that if one Dobie was so wonderful, we should have two.
We rescued a young Dobie girl, Gracie, who was an amazing athlete. Of all the Dobies we were to own in the coming years, she was by far the fastest — and none of the others was slow. We had one of those tennis-ball chuckers that could throw a ball a great distance. Gracie was on it at first bounce, leaping high to snatch it out of the air.
By now, we were getting active with Doberman Rescue of Nebraska. We ferried some orphan dogs to Omaha, brought back some for ourselves and others, did home interviews for prospective adopters and enjoyed our lives and our Dobies, of which we had accumulated several as years passed.
Our penultimate pooch was Johnny, another big, black male in full uniform whom we acquired from DRON. Johnny was a piece of work, a pain in the butt yet still being a great representative of the breed. He was a born politician, never meeting a person he didn’t like, although scaring the stuffing out of a few who were definitely in the wrong place. For “legitimate” visitors, he would back up and plant his rear on their knee, never failing to flatter them — “Oh, look. He really likes me!” Truth to tell, what the dog really wanted was to get his butt scratched.
Johnny was another athlete and it didn’t take him long to discover he could jump our 4-foot chain link fence with little more effort than just stepping over it. He would leap the fence and then run around the entire block to come blasting back, terribly pleased with himself and expecting to get a treat. His little game ended when we put in a 6-foot fence. He tried once, bounced off, and never did it again. Like Joey, Johnny lived a long life, leaving us about two years ago.
As I write this on a dreary December afternoon, I look across the room at a dainty red girl by the name of Arya, snoozing on the couch, keeping an occasional eye on me. She came to us from DRON about six years ago, and after trying to decapitate Johnny, fell madly in love with him. She ignored us, doing what we told her only if Johnny did it first. When he passed, she was lost for months. Eventually she came our way and has become closer to us than any dog we have ever owned.
The decision to get a dog is a big one, and difficult for those of us who love them. We know they will bring us great joy, and sometime in the future, we will mourn their passing. It’s hard. But over the decades we will submit ourselves to these cycles again and again, until we ourselves cross over the Rainbow Bridge and rejoin all our old friends.