Snow drapes the forest, the hen house, and my little pond. At the beginning of this month, a tiny puff of air whispered, “spring” in my ear, but some stiff winds and the clattering of occasional sleet storms have quieted that voice.
Still, down at Button’s Cabin, the first daffodil shoots are poking like slender green candles up from the snow. I tell myself, “Soon I’ll be digging in the garden!”
Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, so I’ve been thinking about love. Not the hearts and candy and card love, but the real thing, and so I want to write about Hannah and Mazel Tov—our dogs. I want to share with you some good old dog love, because it occurs to me that I’ve never talked about Hannah and Mazel but in the vaguest terms, and dog love—for those of us who experience it—is certainly not about vagaries.
Let me introduce you, more intimately, to the two canines who presently walk this life path with Carter and me. Perhaps I’ll reawaken or deepen your own dog love along the way. This introduction may take awhile, if I am to give each dog their due, so I’ll break this up into a couple posts. Here we go:
Hannah and Mazel Tov are as unalike as any two dogs can be. Four years separate them chronologically, with Hannah entering her adult years just as Mazel stumbles through his adolescence. Their early beginnings separate them even more, as I’ve come to realize ever more distinctly this past six months.
Taking a moment to consider their breeds—at least what I can guess about their respective lineages—these two dogs should have at least some smidgeon of behavioral similarities. The Border collie in Hannah seems strong. The blue heeler we believed was dominant in Mazel turns out to be non-existent, and we have been told by folks who supposedly know such things that he is actually a Catahoula leopard dog. So, both breeds are known to be intense and very oriented toward their people. Both require good training, clear direction, and something to do, which we’ve done our best to provide.
More than any two dogs I’ve kept concurrently, Hannah and Mazel have taught me about heritage, the power of life experiences, and the will to have and to express love in its most pure—that is “doggy”—form.
I first met Hannah through the cyclone fencing at a humane society kennel. It was the shelter’s yearly “free pet” weekend, when you could walk away with any animal—spayed, neutered, and vaccinated—free collar included, for nothing. The tag on her kennel said “Bordeaux mix,” which I find very mysterious. Hannah no more resembles a Bordeaux terrier than a newt resembles a woodpecker.
My best guess remains Border collie, Airedale, and Hungarian gypsy. You can see by her photos that she is a regular-looking kind of mutt with Doberman markings and a Fu Manchu beard. I selected her because she was the right size (not too big, not too small), and seemed desperate. I relate to that desperation of kenneled, homeless dogs because I’ve felt desperate in many instances in my life. It is no fun.
Hannah, who had lived in the shelter kennel for almost all of her eight months of life, exuded not only desperation, but utter lack of confidence in life, other dogs, and people. When the shelter staff told me she was perhaps not the best choice of a dog, I replied that sometimes behavior is circumstantial, and not genetic. Lucky for Hannah, I’d been recently dumped by a creep of a boyfriend, and was not thinking clearly that day.
This was Hannah’s first response to finding herself in a home with another dog, cats, carpets, and people: She hid for three days, under coffee tables, beds, and behind toilets, where she would cram herself as tightly as a sardine in a can. When she decided she needed to move from one scary place to another, she slid on her belly, making certain that her tail remained glued to her spleen. When forced to look at us for any reason, she rolled her eyes upward, so that vast white half-moons hung beneath her irises. I think the term for this is “hangdog.”
Looking back, I have no cut-and-dried reason why I selected her, nor why I kept her. The surface of my life was stormy then, and Hannah was in some ways merely an afterthought. Yet in this moment, if I dig beneath the surface where storm surges level out to silent calm, I can recall a slim, silver chord that connected us even back then, not quite heart-to-heart, but gut-to-gut—or perhaps fate-to-fate.
Mazel Tov’s early days on the other hand, reflected the opposite end of the behavioral universe from Hannah. This time, I was hunting hard for the right dog to be a companion for Carter and for Hannah, who had never lived a day in her life without the company of other dogs. Carter’s old dog Blackie had recently died, and while Carter and I both wanted to remain a one-dog family, that just wasn’t working out for Hannah.
I searched for weeks, checking shelters, private rescue organizations, and classified ads. Several mature, small dogs came home for a try-out, but none were kind to Hannah, who remains at heart a tentative yet resigned wuss. Returning yet one more lovely dog to a local rescue organization, I passed a pen containing a mass of tiny, squirming, mottled puppies. I was told they were found abandoned—all nine of them—in a cardboard box at a schoolyard that was closed for the Christmas holidays. By the time a janitor found them, they were stiff with cold. Their eyes were not even open yet. Helen, the rescue maven, said she and her friend had been bottle-feeding them for three weeks and were stunned they had all survived.
I have written before that I did not want a puppy. Too much work, I had told myself. Yet all the mature dogs had not worked out at all, and I was getting very antsy. “How big do you think these will get?” I asked Helen.
“Oh, we’re thinking they’re probably cattle-dog mixes. And see how tiny their feet are?” She held out a round paw that only covered half the tip of her index finger. “They should stay pretty small.”
And so I tucked “Mazel Tov into the pocket of my down jacket, and off we went. He was four weeks old with a fat belly, and all the faith in the world that Hannah had lost so long ago. What was to mistrust? Except for one bad, cold day, he’d been coddled, cuddled, and cooed over for his whole life.
This is how Mazel Tov behaved when we first brought him home. I’m putting his arrival into dialogue, to give you a better sense of the little guy.
Me: “Mazel, welcome home! Look, here’s Hannah. Hannah, be sweet.”
Hannah: “Hmmmm, a stinky guinea pig!”
Mazel: “Howdy, dog! Wow, stuff all over the floor! Must be all mine! Yum, tasty rug! Oh…look at that other hairy thing! Howdy!”
Me: “Mazel, meet Darter. Careful. She’s got sharp claws!”
Mazel: “Howdy Darter! Cool tail! Can I have a bite? Okay, okay, no need to have a cow about it. Howdy dog! Let’s kiss! How about I lick your feet? How about I sample your tail? Hi cat, let’s kiss! Oooh, big people feet and fingers—howdy! Let’s kiss! Oh, gotta pee….”
Mazel slept that night and the next and the next on our bed, where he sighed and belched and kissed me off and on through the night. In contrast to Hannah, his energy was toward, rather than away. I have yet to see his tail down. Whether running, eating, sniffing, or playing, it remains like a flag in an unsettled wind. It waves around in circles, up and down, side to side, and in figure 8s. And its motion is simply furious. Mazel’s butt follows that tail and his backend is nearly always doing some kind of rumba or fast hula.
Hannah keeps her tail mostly straight out. She waves it when she is happy, but is quick to “spleen it” if she thinks the emotional winds are blowing wrong. Against the wall, Hannah’s tail makes a pleasing thump…thump…thump, while Mazel’s is more of a jackhammer thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack. Hannah’s gaze always has a bit of white at the bottom, and has an apology tacked to it. Mazel looks hard into your face, full on. His eyes say “What? WHAT?! Can you speak more CLEARLY? Sheesh!”
Their reaction to basic training has been as different as night and day, too:
Me: “Hannah, here’s a treat. Now, siiiiit….siiiit….that’s right! Good girl!!”
Hannah: “Oh gawd…what did I do wrong?? Better crouch—the beating’s probably going to start soon…”
Me: Mazel, here’s a treat. Now siiit. Yes, yes, almost! Siiiit….Gooood boy!!”
Mazel: “What? What was that all about? Siiiit again? Why should I?! Hold still—let me kiss you all over…”
I hope you can see them now in your mind’s eye: Hannah low slung and furtive except when she rests in the utter peace of sleep. Mazel, butt-dancing and leaning forward, always forward. We’ll stop there for now.