In the movie, “Defending Your Life,” Albert Brooks is seated next to an elderly woman riding on a bus to Judgment City. She asks, “Have I told you about my little dog?” Some time later she asks the same question, ready to begin the story again.
When I got married my wife came complete with a truck bed tool box, her own set of tools, and a little Shih Tzu named Barkley. In the fullness of time her little dog became semi-affectionately known as Barkley J. Poopenhouser.
Barkley J. did everything his name implies. He barked. Often. He barked from places where he had no business being, and always in 3/4 rhythm. “Here I am. By myself. Eat me up.” He did unmentionable things inside the house, and I’m confident that during those years we bought enough carpet cleaner to float a bass boat.
I’ve never been a devotee of little dogs. I like shepherds, pits, huskies; dogs that still resemble the noble wolves from which they descend. But Tracey loved Barkley unconditionally, and he loved her. It’s amazing, the calming and curative influence the right little dog can have on a person.
When we love something we have a tendency to talk about it, and Tracey loved talking about Barkley. Little dogs are admittedly a better topic of conversation than most of what is peddled by corporate media. Talking about headlines and breaking news makes your stomach hurt, but talking about little dogs makes you feel good.
There are other good things to talk about, however, and too much of a good thing has diminishing returns. So when the conversation would sometimes linger too long on the topic of little dogs, some of us who had enjoyed the movie would quip, “Have I told you about my little dog?”
My opinion of little dogs began to change the night we were visited by one of our bears who had developed an interest in the beehives below the barn. I went out with my headlamp and a shotgun to fire the warning shot in the air which lets the experienced bear know that it’s best to move on. My big, brave German shepherd and the pit bull stayed on the deck and barked encouragement. But in the tall grass on a foggy night I looked down to see none other than Barkley J. Poopenhouser by my side, alert and ready for action.
Barkley left us at a ripe old age. He lived a full life and had many adventures. Tracey never stopped missing him, and always wanted another little dog to sit in her lap. For several years we had only giants, but when we lost one of our two golden huskies, there was an opening, and along came “Maxby.”
Frankly I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of resuming the purchase of large amounts of carpet cleaner, but we had replaced much of the carpet with tile by then, and Tracey was joyful. I did insist on changing “Maxby’s” name. That name belongs to a dog destined to ride in an elderly woman’s purse on the bus to Judgment City, not to a dog who lives on a farm.
I was slow to warm to the little Maltese/Shih Tzu, and he regarded me as some kind of appliance, just something that came with the house. Max was, and is, wilful. His nasty habits earned him the nickname, “Nub. Nub Terdloe. That’s ‘Terdloe’ with an ‘e'” He was also known as “Shutup Max.” He barked at everything that moved or might possibly move. He might warm to a friend or neighbor while they were in the room, but if they stepped out and came right back, they were an enemy to be vanquished. The woman who sold us Nub said, “He’s going to require a lot of patience.”
It takes a long time to train little dogs. I think a lot of that time is taken up by their study of you and how to steal your heart. One frosty morning Bonnie, our 14 year old, didn’t come back from her morning constitutional. I called and whistled to no avail. At Bonnie’s age, she didn’t go far, so I took to the woods to find her body. I searched far and wide and could not find her. In an inspiration born of desperation, I took Max outside and said, “Where’s Bonnie?”
To my amazement, Max immediately hit the trail, nose to the ground. He was following something intently, and every 20 feet or so he would stop and look back, waiting for me to catch up. It was like an episode of “Lassie,” but this was real. In just a few minutes he led me directly to the pond, where Bonnie was stuck in the mud in the shallow end, out of sight and unable to pull herself out. She was exhausted from the effort and shivering from the cold, and we were both spent after I pulled her out and carried her 90 lbs back up the hill. Max saved Bonnie’s life.
We think we know a few things. We believe we have mastered the tenets of our faith and the better ideals of our culture. You can’t judge a book by its cover. You can’t judge the size of the spirit or the greatness of the heart by the package they come in. Better yet, you simply can’t judge. All God’s creatures are worthy of love and respect. All of them. That’s not easy to remember at times, but little dogs are here to remind us. Have I told you about my little dog?