Tito the Mighty Hunter: Good Dead Things

tito-truck.jpg

Thinking about dogs tonight, so I’m reposting this bit from 2008:

In most dog-related things, I was a fairly indulgent dad. But having my four-leggers roll in dead stuff, or go off into the brush and bring back something rotten, I had a hard time with that.

Tito was especially bad about it.

One summer day we were out along Varmint Creek hiking. I have this thing I sometimes do – I think of it as my super power – I hike and read at the same time. The subconscious Guardian Idiot that resides in all our heads, in my case has terrific peripheral vision, and I’m able to read and navigate along a trail, even rough mountain terrain, at the same time. I never fall down, I never walk into trees, I never even stumble.

On occasion, I look up from my book and find myself stopped in the trail, just standing there. I glance around to find out what my Guardian Idiot wants to bring to my full conscious attention.

This time, it was a dripping Tito coming out of the creek, head held high with a prize. It was some sort of animal hide, I could tell, but it was so putrid I couldn’t even guess the species. Tito had pulled it off a rank waterlogged carcass snagged up under some streamside brush. It was so far gone that gelatinous bits of it were dropping off as he carried it – if there was a Jell-O flavor of Dead, it would look like what he was carrying.

“Oh, Tito, shit! Drop that, it’s disgusting! Ranger, get away from it!” Fists in both collars, I dragged the both of them away at top walking speed, vomit poking at the back of my throat the whole time with the thought of that nasty dead thing actually in my dog’s mouth.

It happened several more times.

And I finally realized: Tito didn’t mind having a disgusting dead thing in his mouth. He liked it. He was even proud of it. And Ranger seemed jealous, looking at me like “Where’s MY dead thing??”

Eventually I came to understand that dogs have a canine ethic in their heads about dead things, and not a human one. I understood that they’re NOT US. It was an emancipation for both of us – I stopped trying to force them into a human mold, at least as far as dead things were concerned, and began to take pleasure in their pleasure in such doggie activities, however disgusting they sometimes seemed to me. And the dogs stopped having to deal with me handing out these mystifying, arbitrary punishments.

After the light bulb went off over my head, Tito would trot out of the brush with a rotten deer leg, or the half-decayed skull of some small animal, and I’d say “Oooh, Tito’s found a Good Dead Thing! Oh, boy, that looks sooooo good. Nom nom nom!” And Tito would happily lie in the brush and gnaw on it, crunching the bones like a tiger and glancing smugly up at Ranger and I all the while.

If I was set on finishing the hike and wouldn’t wait for him, he’d gnaw on it for a bit, then trot past and ahead of me a ways and find another spot to rest and gnaw. I’d catch up to and pass him, and he’d do it again, leapfrogging ahead several times until he’d finished the thing.

There was a lesson in canine memory in all this too.

If we were in the first few minutes of the trail and Tito came out with a deer leg, I’d take it away from him. I wanted us to enjoy the hike together, and not have him preoccupied with edible toys. But if I left it on the ground anywhere, he would go back and get it, so I had to hook it over the branch of one of the scrawny mountain trees.

I always explained it to him. “We’ll come back for it, buddy. It’s your Good Dead Thing. It’ll be here when we come back, okay?”

After a few times of this, Tito seemed wholly content to change gears and just go on the hike. There were no worried, longing looks, no whining. He turned instantly to the trail and trotted as jauntily as ever. But he never once forgot where the Good Dead Thing was. When we came back to that spot, at the end of the hike or even several days later, he went right to the tree and looked up at it, then back at me. And I, keeping my promise, got it down for him and handed it over. “Here it is. Tito’s Good Dead Thing! Oooh, yummy!”

This will sound funny, but it’s something I think is very, very important in being a doggie dad: You never, never, never lie to or cheat your dog. Never. You always play fair, you always tell the truth, you always keep your promises.

If you say you’re going to do something, you do it.

The reason is not only that your dog has no defense against the way you treat him, and so to treat him meanly turns you into an instant bullying a-hole, but that … well, you want to grow the line of communication between the two of you.

Your dog watches you – his Alpha Wolf – all the time. He WANTS to know what’s going on in your head. He wants to understand what you’re doing and saying, so he can keep you happy with him. If you say or do something that seems comprehensible in dog terms, he remembers it and learns a new connection with you. But if you capriciously change it the next time, or every time, you confuse him and wipe out that connection. You destroy the closeness of understanding in your friendship.

And there’s even a third reason, it seems to me, a broader one that recognizes the deal that humans and dogs worked out all those tens of thousands of years ago. Dogs got food and companionship, a warm fire and some measure of safety, we humans got work partners, protectors and play friends. But then one side started to cheat.

We started to breed them into tortured little forms that are crippled and stupid, turning some of them into toys. We began to blithely trim their ears, their tails, other more sensitive bits, and think nothing of it. We started to order their lives and deaths for our own convenience and none of theirs. We began to choose who would live and die for the frivolous reasons of style and fashion, and even worse, began to throw them away when we grew tired of them.

My feeling is that if stupid, uncaring people are going to treat dogs-as-a-species like this, every compassionate dog owner will at least play fair with his own specific canine friends. You keep your promises. You treat them fair. You keep the leash loose. To do less is to tacitly agree that dogs are nothing but possessions, and that anything anybody wants to do to them is okay.

One day, though, Tito pushed the bargain from the dog side.

We were out hiking, again along Varmint Creek, and he spotted a herd of deer off in the distance. Whoosh, he was off!

I yelled, I screamed, I threatened, but he’d gone conveniently and completely deaf. All the deer heads came up and they went bounding away, crashing through the manzanita and rabbit brush like Olympic sprinters, Tito hot on their trail.

Straight for the highway. Oh, crap.

I cut the hike short, and Ranger and I hurried back to the truck. I peeled out, throwing road gravel behind me in a generous rooster tail as I roared up the long s-curve of the dirt road to where it connected with the highway. I rushed back up the highway toward where Tito would have come out, and when I got there I stopped and whistled my power whistle, which both Tito and Ranger knew and which I was pretty sure carried a quarter-mile or so.

No Tito.

I motored up to the turnaround and cut back towards town, cruising slow with the windows rolled down, power-whistling out both sides of the truck and hoping I wasn’t luring Tito out into the sparse but fast traffic.

I did this for about 15 minutes, then decided to run back home, to see if anybody had called. Tito’s collar had my phone number on it. I waited a bit by the phone, hoping for a call. Back in the truck, I drove out to the highway again and cruised both sides of it, over and over.

Back home to check messages. Nothing. Back to the highway. Nothing. Shit.

I went home, dejected. Tito and I were both new enough to each other that I wasn’t sure what he would do if he lost me.

Another hour went by, but the phone finally rang. A young woman’s voice with a hint of censure in it: “We found your dog out on the highway, eating a road-killed deer.”

I laughed out loud, both to know he was okay and at how funny it was, and I’m not sure she liked hearing it. They gave me directions, and I drove straight over. Tito was happy to see me, but he’d also been busy charming the couple who’d picked him up. “What a neat dog!” they said, and they seemed to regret letting him go.

“The worst thing about this,” I said as I left, “is that now I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to stop him running off. Tito knows now that deer are not only fun to chase, but they taste good too.”

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About Hank Fox
  • Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    This will sound funny, but it’s something I think is very, very important in being a doggie dad: You never, never, never lie to or cheat your dog. Never. You always play fair, you always tell the truth, you always keep your promises.

    If you say you’re going to do something, you do it.

    This.

    My dad was wrong about a lot of things when I was growing up. But there was one thing he was definitely right about – it’s nothing short of cruel to lie to a dog. If you say you’re going to give him a treat? Give him a treat. If you hold up a ball and make a motion like you’re throwing it? You better let go of the ball. Dogs don’t understand deceit and trickery – at least, not in the way we do.

    Also, it’s been like three weeks! I was afraid you’d fallen off the planet.

  • lochaber

    Just seconding the bit about liking the not lying bit. I’d sorta say that goes for anyone/thing that you care about maintaining a positive relationship with. Maybe possible exceptions considering good reasons explained after the fact (although, I’m pretty sure that would just apply to humans…).

    Yeah, dogs and rank things… it’s kinda fascinating. I’m more of a cat person (no critters currently), but as a kid, there were dogs in the household. One particularly loved foul smelling things. It was always amusing come dog-bath-time. That one dog, no matter what precautions we attempted would always manage to bust out, get outside, and proceed to find the foulest smelling road kill or manure, and then spend the next hour or two working the smell into it’s pelt. Loved that dog, but not how it smelled :/

  • Acolyte of Sagan

    From what I can gather, this thing about dogs rolling in ‘dead stuff’ is instinctive behaviour retained from pre-domestication times when the only way to obtain food was to hunt for it. The theory is that the dog’s natural prey will bolt at the first scent of dog, but if it instead gets a whiff of ‘dead stuff’, stuff that it comes across all the time in the wild, it will not be unduly alarmed. Likewise, dogs will often roll in excrement, preferably cattle or horse droppings, for the same reason; a deer will have no instinctive fear of the smell of cow dung, so the smelly dog will be able to get that much closer to its prey before it is noticed, leading to a shorter chase.
    So there you go; rolling in smelly stuff is all to do with conservation of energy in the hunt.

  • Tracey

    When I was a kid, we lived right next to a beach. One of the two family dogs (the terrier mix with the very strong hunting instinct) just *adored* rolling in disgusting stuff…seaweed, dead sea creatures…didn’t matter. The other dog (retriever mix with no instinct to hunt) had zero interest in any of that. My dog I had as an adult (11 years) came to us at about 5 years old, another terrier mix with *zero* interest in hunting or chasing, and zero interest in rolling in things (for which I was thankful!). However, we had to keep the bathroom door shut because he *would* devour feminine hygiene products. With great glee.

    My dog-as-an-adult came to us as a recue and I have no idea what his life was like before us, but he had no interest in dogs and lived his life for people. It’s humbling how hard he tried to fit in with his human family. He was pretty darned good at communication–both receiving and sending. I never lied to him because to me it would be as cruel as lying to an especially-devoted toddler.

  • geocatherder

    Thanks, Hank, for the lovely story.

  • MaryL

    I used to have a Himalayan cat that shared his kills with me. He’d leave a half of a mouse, a spider, a centipede, etc. carefully laid out in front of the refrigerator. Often met me at the door and led me in to the kitchen so I’d see the ‘offering’. I’d pet and praise, he’d walk away and I’d clean up out of his sight. Once, he saw things put in the trash and tried to get them back out.

    Our German Shepherds often brought us things they found at the parks where we took them to run. Dead things, toys (especially balls!) even discarded clothing. We always carried a plastic bag to put anything in, and except for cleanable balls, dropped the bag in a trash can as we left. We learned to make sure the dog wasn’t looking at the drop or we’d hear about it.

    We’ve been lucky in my family – our pets shared.

  • Didaktylos

    I don’t suppose it’s any mystery why dogs will go for carrion – there is no predatory species that doesn’t also scavenge.

  • http://faultline.org Chris Clarke

    I miss Tito. Odd to think I never met him, but I miss him.

    • Laurie Loftus

      Appreciating the real dogness of dogs will always make us miss our own dogs, and their proxies. We take comfort in knowing these ones were afforded the opportunity to be real dogs. The Titos, the Zekes, the Stellas. My sweet bed-cuddling dog, who bounded across multi-lane highways in pursuit of a deer’s scent. Who returned to me on trails triumphantly brandishing a deer shin picked clean to the bone. I still feel joy recalling that.

  • MG Myers

    Great story, Hank! I love the vivid descriptions in your posts.

  • No Light

    Beautiful. And that picture? It cannot be real, too gorgeous, smiley, Pixar dog. I am in love with Tito’s picture!

    This will sound funny, but it’s something I think is very, very important in being a doggie dad: You never, never, never lie to or cheat your dog. Never. You always play fair, you always tell the truth, you always keep your promises.

    Being a dog’s person is a privilege and a responsibility.

    The theory in my head is that there is no God, but there is Dog. A being full of perfect love, a bringer of sweetness and joy, who loves us and protects us, helps us to really see the beauty in the little things. Dog. does not lie, betray, start wars, let us down, desert us when we’re in need.

    Dog is everywhere, in every possible form, loving and protecting the world. So it’s our duty to respect that, to treat Dog as the amazing, love-generating, life-changing force that it is.

    I lost my beautiful Labradog in 2003. To this day, I can honestly say that I have never grieved for someone so powerfully, so ultimately and totally, as I did for her. She never lied to me, stole from me, abused me, beat me, or made me want to die. She was the one reason I didn’t kill myself in my teens, the person who kept me going, loved me unconditionally, stood by me as I shook in fear.

    That’s why being somedog’s person is such a commitment if you do it right, and it’s why no sacrifice is too small to make on their behalf. I believe that they make us better people, and my lifetime ambition is now nothing more than to be able to move unaided again one day, so that I can have that privilege once more.

  • mikecline

    Acolyte of Sagan,

    I think my dog just loves the smell of shit and rot.

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