This is the story of a dog. It’s not a fancy or moral story and it has no weather that sets the mood. It is the story of finding a dog, loving a dog, and losing a dog. It is the same as all stories about dogs. So, if you’re looking for something else, be warned you won’t find it here; here you’ll find the story of a dog.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
The sign on the side of the road read “free puppies.” My brother and I simultaneously attacked. In the fifteen-minute car ride home, we achieved what was probably the most stunning rhetorical victory of either of our long tactical campaigns against our mother. It was a three pronged attack with a staunch left and center supported by encirclement on the right: we would be safer with a dog, the dog would keep poachers off the land, and, finally, puppies are adorable, and we had never had one.
Within an hour, my mom had talked with my dad, and we were driving back for the free puppy! My dad was less excited about this. He was thinking about how much a “free puppy” costs. By the time you add up spaying or neutering the poor thing, examinations, vaccinations, and other -ations, free puppies can cost hundreds of dollars. He agreed, though; I think because he wanted us to have the joy of growing up with the puppy that he never had.
We returned to the house with the sign to find a very nice couple and a small pen of extremely happy puppies in their yard. The couple had an Australian Shepherd and the dogs had the markings of a German Shepherd, the mix of the breed was clear, though they had no pedigree. In an elaborate procedure, all the puppies were called to one side of the pen. Gabe, perhaps five at this point, was dropped at the other end like a human plaything; the stampede was on. We were going to take home the first dog that made it to Gabe, but that dog apparently played a little too hard and was covered in shit. So we scooped up the runner-up.
There was much debate about the name of the dog that day. She was playful, gentle, and trusting. She was also a Tootsie-roll with a belly as long as her legs. You could roll her down a hill and she would run back up for another ride, tongue swinging out the side of her mouth in a puppy grin. As we played with the dog, my mom reflected that if her mother had not died and left us her inheritance, then we never would have been able to afford the farm. So we decided to name her in honor of Joe.
A Name’s Pedigree
Now, this name takes some explaining. My grandmother on my mom’s side, Omi, was a full-blooded German whose parents came over years before the first Great War. She was a secretary from the Mad Men age: smoking, drinking, and speaking in a voice that reveled in years of both. She was tough, bawdy, and I’m guessing pretty fun in her day. She was the bad grandma. It was her nickname Joe, that we chose for our dog. Joe, one of the guys. And apart from the smoking and drinking, Joe, or Joey, was just like Omi had always been: there for you, tough, and ready to back you in any fight.
Racoons, for example, are cute from a distance, but vicious creatures in the woods. I don’t know if it was the German or the Australian in her, but Joey was always ready to fight for her territory—which many have been everything. I once saw her take a twenty-pound Racoon and treat it like a beanie-baby. Remember those cute little animals filled with rice or some junk that people collected? Well, she would grab it by its scruff and toss it at least four feet in the air, leaping at it—jaws wide— before it even hit the ground. She “don’t take no guff,” as the song goes.
I will always remember one epic fight that Joey and I had. We were walking through the bird sanctuary, taking the back way to a friend’s whose house was in front of our land. It was a short walk, and on a warm, late April day—the kind that fills your heart with calm. Off in the tall grass, Joey started to tussle with something so I paused to let her finish the creature off. This time it didn’t end quickly though, and I realized that a second creature was now fighting her at the same time.
You may be surprised to learn this, but most creatures that grow up in nature are dicks. It’s not mean—they have to be to survive. It might also surprise you, then, that Joey was fighting two vicious-looking groundhogs. Then a third one appeared and began to attack her from behind. I considered this encirclement rude, uncivil, and against the rules of engagement. So, I got the largest stick I could find and started playing wack-a-mole on the unfair attacker.
At this point I had had about six months of fencing lessons, and this groundhog turned on me and was driving me back inch by inch. Joey was still fighting her two groundhogs, and the tactical situation needed to change. A few steps more and I found myself backed against a large oak tree, which gave me the impression of safety.
Now as it may have surprised you that most wild animals are survival-dicks, you may also be surprised to know that despite their name, groundhogs are adept at swimming and climbing trees. And so it was with the greatest shock that I heard the god-awful shriek of a spread-eagle dive-bombing groundhog coming from above my right shoulder. I had never played baseball, but I put everything I had into that swing.
Then, in a moment of clarity, my eyes locked with Joey’s and we knew what we had to do. We ran like yellow cowards back toward the house, hoping that at least groundhogs weren’t secretly masterful sprinters as well. It is a testament to their sluggish pace that I write to you today. But no matter what, Joey was always watching over us.
As she got older, Joey refused to age. She would still take on anything that threatened us or her land. As usual on day, we were walking in the woods, and so I stopped to let her have her fight. Fortunately it wasn’t with a groundhog. But it was a raccoon. This last fight was tough on her. Like seeing an aging boxer who refuses to admit that their time has passed. The raccoon was fast and got a lock on Joey’s neck. Worried about how wrong this could have gone on, I grabbed another big stick—my go-to forest combat move—and smacked that raccoon. It popped off Joey’s neck like a Pez and came after me, but Joey got its head, so I whacked it in the back, and when it turned to me Joey was ready to grab the tail. That was our last fight together. She knew, I think, that she had to hang up the gloves. Older Joey was calmer but no less protective in her own way.
The Guard Dog
Once she even acted as a life-doggy. In the many eddies and swirls of a creek, you’ll often find a swimming hole. A natural childrens’ paradise bound in by tall grass and presided over by the occasional tree limb. We would swim in a shallow, muddy hole like that for hours as if it were a water park. Once, we decided to have a floating contest. Joey must have thought we were in danger. She very delicately grabbed each of us by our t-shirts and pulled us to the edge. Of course, at first we didn’t understand what she was doing, but after we realized we let her complete her task and then, without any barrier of cleanliness since we were both wet and stinky from the creek, lavished praise on her.
Like so many stories about a pet, this one ends with Joey getting old. There weren’t any specific signs that she was in trouble. But they found her one day while I was at college, asleep under her favorite lookout point, the deck. My dad buried her on a little hill between a lilac bush and a wall of honeysuckle, just a few feet away from our family’s gazebo; she would be close to us when we were out in the summer like she always was.