Thursday, May 10, 2012

Going to the Dogs, Part 3

With Dusky and Kenya gone from my life, my dog-less status stayed pretty much status quo for probably the next decade. During that time, I finished college, started a job, decided to get married, embarked on wedded life, and bought a home. So those early years for my bride and me -- owing to our steady work hours and our concentration on each other rather than a pet -- kept my yen for a dog at bay.

But Eileen knew that someday, a dog would be a permanent part of our household.

Again (as was the case with Ken), I would find myself in a dog-by-proxy situation, this time, thanks to my parents.

Dad had always loved basset hounds. When he and Mom were in their first home as newlyweds, they had a neighbor with a basset, and Dad immediately became enamored with the breed. This floppy friend, Elmer, was apparently quite the social butterfly. He also, the stories say, fully fit the hound stereotype of being extremely food-driven. Dad used to tell the tale that Elmer would habitually visit the neighbors and beg for treats. Well, "beg" is not exactly the correct description: Dad used to say that Elmer would sit on their stoop and bay at the door until it was opened, at which time he would happily pad to the kitchen, plop down in front of the refrigerator, and bay once more, until a snack was dispensed.

Whether this story is true or not remains a mystery, but knowing what I know about basset hounds, it seems to me to be altogether plausible.

So thanks to Elmer, Dad always wanted a basset.

In the late 1980s, Dad retired from working for the U.S. Navy, owing mostly to his health. By that time in his life he had suffered and recovered from two heart attacks, and he felt it was time to bid his working years goodbye.

To soften the blow and give him a "project" to work on at home, Mom decided to present him with a surprise gift for his first post-retirement birthday. She and my eldest brother searched the newspaper ads (and again, this was a different time and place, and the risks presented by backyard breeders weren't nearly as publicized then as now) and came up with a litter whose delivery time coincided closely with Dad's day.

Getting Dad out of the house that morning was not really a challenge: Eileen and I were working on a rather involved and large DIY effort in our nest, rehabbing our basement into a family room space. So the plan was pulled off flawlessly: Dad left home for our place, armed with tools and lumber; Mom and my brother zipped to the breeder to pick up the pup; they then all met up at our house to surprise the pants off him.

And it worked. Dad was absolutely flabbergasted as Mom placed into his arms this totally out of proportion, slinky-like collection of big paws, droopy ears, and slobber. 

"Well, look at this little Murphy here," Dad said, not knowing at that instant that he'd named the dog.

Murphy entered his life. And his heart. And he managed to sweep us all under his spell as well.

The slobbery part of the description of Baby Murph was partly due to his teething. But it was also partly due to a horrid bout of carsickness, a malady Murphy would suffer from for the remainder of his life. Dad took to travelling with him in the car with a small cardboard box and a supply of old bath towels close at hand, and he often reported the challenge of trying to safely navigate a 55 mph highway while catching Murphy's ejected breakfast. 

Murphy was cute as a button. He was also as challenging as hell.

Looking back on it now, I can identify several lapses in judgment Dad made in raising this dog. First, he decided against a crate.

A crate, for those of you who think is something to ship your bad dog off to Australia in, is a mesh-wire or cloth-covered "box" (for lack of a better word) in which a dog can be safely put to be kept out of trouble.

A crate is also a prime ingredient in successful and efficient potty training, based on the theory that a dog will not let loose where he/she sleeps. And since a crate, when properly introduced, becomes a convenient and comfortable sleeping spot during the day, it also becomes a spot not to pee/poop in. So a common potty routine is this: First thing in the morning, whisk the dog to the lawn; let him do his business; praise him like he has just found the cure to the common cold; and move on with your day. Eventually, the canine catches on about where and when to relieve him/herself, and life is good.

In deciding against the crate -- especially for a scent hound (which a basset is, as driven 100% by the information that comes into that electric nose on a steady basis) -- Dad sentenced himself to round-the-clock trips to the lawn to encourage elimination. And a veritable ocean of inside accidents.

Eventually, Murphy got the idea, but it was a very long time in coming.

The other mistake Dad made was indulging Murphy's every whim. Murphy's schedule was rock-solid, meaning that once set, there was very little wiggle room. If he was accustomed to a walk each day at 6:00 a.m., then that walk was expected at 6:00 a.m., feast or famine.

In the blistering summers and the frigid winters, Dad and Murphy could be spotted making their appointed rounds at their appointed times.

One result of this rigidness is that Mom and Dad often brought Murphy with them when they went visiting, owing to the stress involved in leaving him home.

The first time my soon-to-be sister-in-law hosted a dinner at her house for my parents, they brought along Murph. He was reasonably well behaved until, in the post-dinner cleanup, he bumped an entire pound of butter off a nearby counter top and promptly devoured it in a few muzzle-licking chomps. Quite the introduction to the in-laws, huh?

Their commute home in the car that evening was doubly challenging, as Murphy was ejecting content from both ends.

Dad often took Murphy with him on various errands. A local hardware store was a favorite haunt, where the thick-accented German owner fawned over Murph shamelessly. She would pat the bony structure on the top of his head and coo, "Das ist your schtubbern loomp. All basset houndz haff a good schtubbern loomp, and you'ff gotz a beauty, dere!!"

For years thereafter, we commented often on Murphy and his "...stubborn lump."

My daughters came one by one. And Murphy had mellowed considerably by then. As babies and then toddlers, the would lay on him or yank his ears innocently, and, perhaps understanding that these human "puppies" deserved the slack, he bore the transgressions with patience and gentility.

Murphy lived to be 13 years old. He slowed considerably, as all good dogs seem to. And over the course of a few months, his health began to slide. Eventually, he was diagnosed with liver cancer, and that is what took him from us.

We all grieved the loss of this friendly, unique dog. But how my father cried.

The afternoon that Murphy was let go was one of two occasions I ever remember my father shedding actual tears. And the first was at the loss of his father.

I remember struggling to tell our kids. And there were more tears.

Murphy was a challenge, but he was a great dog.

He also planted a seed. Once which grew within the soil of my own marriage and my own children.

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