And I Am Not The Alpha Male

His name would be Scout. This dog just looked like he should have that name. I think the notion came from some old 50s cowboys and Indians TV show stored deep in childhood memory. Forget Coco—a name he must have come with to the humane shelter. What a  sissy name for a studdly dog. Scout. Come Scout. Stay Scout. Scout, Go Find Timmy!

So we got him home, well and good, save for having to lift a reluctant, fearful 55 pounds into the back seat of the car. I do not want to lift this dog ever again. And once in the house for the very first time, he seemed to have been indoors before. That was a relief. (Dingo, not so much. He thought the dining room table was just another place to lie down.) After marking his territory indoors the first three nights, he “got it” that ALL THIS was his territory. Oh you lucky lucky dog!

We’ve always shared our home with the family dog. Not everyone does, but his previous owners must have. This dog had definitely been up and down steps before, like maybe he lived in the basement and went UP to eat or to go OUT. He disappeared to Ann’s room at the top of the stairs before we closed the back door behind us on Day One. We still keep a barrier across the foot of those steps; and Scout discovers every failure to put it back in place.

On that very first day, we discovered that this dog didn’t give a rat’s acetabulum about food; or about treats. He could not care less. He still goes full days without eating, kibble and table scraps on the floor in front of him.

And that single fact set him apart from every other dog we’ve had since the Regan administration; set him apart from every other dog who would do ANYTHING for a mere morsel of kibble. Zack, Buster, Tsuga or Gandy (and the transient Dingo for that matter) would crawl on their bellies from here to town for a bit of scrambled egg.  Scout sniffed it and walked off. Gravy? Meh!

Scout yawned at all that. And this set the stage for a long and unsatisfying struggle to train this dog. If positive reinforcement didn’t mean squat, how would we reward and assure future desired behavior when it really mattered?  Sit, stay, come, leave it! Forget all that.

Flash forward from Scout’s first days here in April 2018 to October. We learned at (dis)obedience school that some dogs respond well to microwaved hotdog bits, and (whoodaThunk) string cheese. It worked sufficient (for a while) to reinforce basic commands. He loved playing hide-and-seek, both of us hiding and calling COME! (He gets a treat!) And back and forth he went. 

And so by October, some considerable training had happened—inside, at least, and in a distraction-free setting. But when other dogs and people were around (June dog-obedience classes in Christiansburg for instance) rules and patterns of behavior in the house totally vanished. We got back home, he became Good Dog Scout again. Indoors, he was affectionate, obedient, fun to be with, and increasingly devoted, especially to me. 

All the more heartbreak outdoors then, where he was NOT a joy. But we confess, in hindsight, to some early mistakes. We’d change this if we ever had it to do over again; but we won’t.

From the start, we wanted control over the dog on walks, where he was prone to take the lead. A chest harness took the pressure off his throat and distributed it through his chest. This seemed logical, but it was a mistake. His strength and drive to lead the pack pulled us like a plowshare behind a draft horse on crack, in then out of the creek and across the pasture. The harness gave him authority to be pack leader. I watched Out the window, Ann in this dance, the water-skier behind the powerboat. Land skiing is NOT a pretty sight.

So morphing Scout into the comfortable, reliable companion dog like each of his predecessors had been to us would mean that we could confidently and routinely have him with us, off-leash, for our walks around the pasture. Eventually, we hoped, he would stay with Ann when she went to gather twigs, go with me to haul wood up from Yucca Flats, be with us every time we went outdoors multiple times every day, good weather and bad.

This, some of you will recognize, is Gandy, from about this time a few years back. Look what she found! I realize now I have very few shots of Scout outdoors. That will change.

Scout would be responsible for keeping up with us, not us with him—and, most importantly, he would sit-and-stay reflexively, calmly, a safe distance from passing trucks, bicycles, horses and motorcycles on the one-lane gravel road, rare though those passers-by might be.

Alas, into November, it never happened the way we longed that it would. We’d walk a bit down the New Road along the pasture margin, with the dog on leash. At some point one of us would say “You think this is a good place?” And very subtly I’d unhook the clasp from the leash to the harness ring, hoping he would get it this time that he belonged along-side US. But the instant he was free, he was gone. Outta sight. His off-leash breakouts averaged an hour and change. 

And so we loved him under a roof and loathed him under the sky. Scout was disturbing my peace, having become canine non grata. And yet, Ann “just knew” that some day, he’d morph into a devoted, intelligent, obedient dog. And when we told him to, he’d go find Timmy.

Read Part One: Outside of a Dog

Read Part Two: Finding Old Yeller

Finding Old Yeller

Carolina Dog / Bing Images

Read Part One: Outside of A Dog…

Gandy, a week before she died on Valentines Day last year, was able to jump into the back of my truck while we unloaded wood. She always helped by selecting her own piece to turn into wood chips. Then she lost ground rapidly. When the vet left the house after putting her gently to her final sleep, we vowed the pain was too much to think of having another dog in this life. A week later, we were less sure of that, and began browsing the animal adoption sites. We found Scout in April.

Months later, we were stalled mid-way between love and something else, so far as this wild-card rescue dog was concerned. He was not fitting in. We couldn’t get allegiance into his head. He certainly didn’t see us as the leaders of his pack. What would it take to make that happen? I frankly despaired, and will tell more about that in the third installment.

Who was this dog? What would it take to reach him, to keep him, to welcome him fully into our lives and love him like all his predecessors?

It was during this ambivalent wondering that Google lens spit back at me an image that was Scout. The caption: Carolina Dog. Wait. What? I never heard of the breed. But maybe if it helped us better know his pre-ordained disposition, habits, preferences and genetic tendencies, we could do better at winning him over. Or maybe not. 

And so I spent a couple of entire days reading everything I could find on Carolina Dogs–also called the American Dingo; or Pariah dog (a catch-all for barely or non-domesticated breeds in ancient times that have persisted in a semi-wild state.)

Scout’s first snow after coming to Goose Creek *click for short video

I compared pictures of other supposed Carolina Dogs (Yellow Dogs or Yeller Dogs) to Scout, and read about their temperaments and habits. More often than not, what I read described the mutt sitting next to me on the loveseat as I scrolled page after page on my iPad.

► Curved tail when alert, drooping horizontal when at rest: CHECK

► Snout Pits: CHECK (yet it seems it is usually females who do this.)

► Champion mouser: CHECK

► Coat soft, with dense undercoat. Immaculately clean, little shedding: CHECK

► Wary of Strangers at first: CHECK (especially MEN)

► Buries poop with the nose: Nope. He is inclined to bury any treat we give him with his nose in the snow or grass or soft dirt. He isn’t much for treats. More, anon. 

► Fiercely local to the pack, once bonded: Well the jury was still very much out on that one when we first began exploring Scout’s possible parentage.

And I’m not claiming that discovering his ancestry sealed the bond, but it helped us be patient with whatever legacy of biology or tolerant of prior abuse or failure of training he might have known, and give him space to BELONG to our pack. We despaired for months that this would happen. Spoiler: it DID!

So: Carolina Dog. Most have erect ears, while Scout’s flop most of the time. Most are smaller frame, but some are stouter. Scout was 55 pounds when we got him, and has gained a bit since, but still covers the ground just like the videos of American Dingos all over the Internet.

This is indeed a DIFFERENT dog from most other breeds, because it did not come over with the European settlers like most early American dog varieties. The American dingo accompanied the post-ice-age immigrants across the Bering land bridge from Asia some eight to 10 thousand years ago or before.

If you’re interested, rather than me reposting the wealth of information out there about Carolina Dogs, I’ll offer some of the links I’ve collected for your perusal. This was engaging, relevant and helpful reading for me, longing to make known as much as possible about this dog whose history was otherwise hidden from the other side of his crate at Angels of Assisi in Roanoke where we found him and fetched him home on April 19 of lsat year.

Seven months later, Scout was a dear soul inside the house, but still wanted nothing more than to escape if he accidentally got out the door or we let him off-leash outdoors, thinking every time, “this time he’ll want to stay with us.”

This dog needed to run—a lot, and every day. Maybe he doesn’t need to be the responsibility of two old codgers. There was no yard to be fenced, invisible or otherwise. He began to run down the road and bother the neighbors who have small children. This was making our lives miserable. The dog was to blame, even though it wasn’t his fault the Gum Ball Machine of life dropped him here on Goose Creek.

It was a long, grievous half year, I suppose for him as well as for us. At wits end, I wrote a couple of letters to humane shelters, asking if it were possible to “rehome” this dog, a creature that would never fit into our lives here. I never sent those letters.


Outside of a Dog

This could get complicated, seeing as how I have not spoken in public places about “the dog situation” in some months. I was forbidden to, so fraught with potential guilt in giving the dog-in-question back to Angels of Assisi should we fail, or otherwise not succeeding in the training to make him fit in, to bond with us and behave anything like the dogs that have been our companions, back to our first in 1981. 

I have good news, for those who might have been in on the story: Scout is still with us, and he belongs here and knows it. It has been a steep uphill battle, finally won. Mostly.

The story of that behavior mod remains for another time, perhaps. It is the discovery of Scout’s genetic roots I want to share briefly here this morning. 

The mug shot on the animal adoption website showed a pale-colored medium-sized 13 month old dog named Coco, and described him as “yellow lab / golden retriever mix.” Three of the four A-team dogs we’ve had under our roof over the last 35 years have been labs, Gandy the Ridgeback-Shepherd mix being the exception.

So we took the risk and brought him home—the first older-than-eight-week puppy in our pets lineup, and odd to think of it: He is likely the last dog we will ever have in our lives. Strange to think the dog is likely to outlive us, but there comes a time.

Regarding pedigree, I was convinced there was other blood involved. Scout (our new name for him) does not have the docile-tractable lab state of mind exactly. He shows a much more independent streak, with less drive to please and cooperate. But maybe that just has to do with his first home, about which we know nothing—only that he came to us knowing nothing. Sit. Stay. Come. Not so much. 

But the strangest physical trait was the tail hooked over the back. So I thought maybe husky; or Spitz. But Scout’s tail is fish-hook curved when he is intent on something out the window or in the field, then droops to horizontal when he is calm. What’s up with that?

Scout’s tendencies outdoors are not lab-like. Every lab we’ve ever grown to know has been an ardent and skilled MOLE extractor. I have pictures of Tsuga in the snow, tossing a mole high in the air, and catching it in his mouth. Our yard has always been pockmarked with mole diggings. Not anymore. 

Scout could care less about moles, but he is a champion mouser. He digs out a big tuft of shredded grass from the pasture a half-dozen times every time we take our walk there. More often than not, there is a protein snack inside.

And lastly in the list of pedigree puzzlers, in the garden (which has become Scout’s alfresco recreation space) he doesn’t help with the moles there like I wish he would. But he digs “snout pits” for no apparent reason. I think I have a picture somewhere of the results.

So here’s where the story takes a turn: Because it was new and I wanted to test it, I used Google Lens to take a picture of Scout, who was sitting there next to me when I had the notion to use this new tool. It came back with an identification of the object in the image.

And that is where the story picks up in the next blog post! 

BONUS FEATURE (or additional punishment, depending…)

Who originally made this quip:

Outside of a Dog, a Book is Man’s Best Friend. Inside of a Dog, It’s Too Dark to Read

I thought it was Groucho Marx. Maybe. Maybe not.

New Book: Fifth Risk

We are lurching forward into an unknown and unchartable future where there are no rules or precedents in the halls of government. Where might we end up when uninformed democracy breaks down and unconstrained capitalism drives us to the brink?

“Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing those costs. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is upside to ignorance, and downside to knowledge.

Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview. If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course. They are the linchpins of the system—those public servants whose knowledge, dedication, and proactivity keep the machinery running. Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.”

Read more about and from the book…

The Future We Want

Blue Ridge Mountains from the air

The future we want begins when we find and pursue the greater good for each other, other living things, and future generations in place, in the small pockets of belonging, in the rural and urban places of America. My place is Floyd County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. This essay was part of SustainFloyd’s annual report for 2017, and it seems fitting to offer it more widely at a time when we need hope and vision.