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BILL KILFOIL: Canine contributions: a dog’s breakfast

Dog-walking companies do only fast group walks or organized excursions to a park.
"Like many suburbs, we benefit from dog diversity," writes Bill Kilfoil. - Courtesy of Christie Blatchford

My wife and I live in a residential community of walkers and step counters, a pleasing, contented neighbourhood featuring several species of pooches and pensioners.

Most days, agreeable folks walk around our quiet streets accompanied by their dog, or if the dog is not available, by their spouse. Folks strolling around the neighbourhood whose names are not known to us are identified by their canine companion — you know the one I’m talking about: the blonde with the golden Lab.

Like many suburbs, we benefit from dog diversity. We have dogs of every breed, creed and political persuasion (including a brown-faced variety called Trudeau Terriers). We have dogs that are faithful, promiscuous, atheists, disciples, lifters and squatters, pacers and trotters. We have four-legged, two-spirited dogs. Some are lumpy, some smooth, some are as fat as a home plate umpire and some as thin as a coat hanger. We have capitalist and socialist dogs, uplifting dogs, downward-facing dogs, newly minted dogs and ancient dogs — some can hardly lift a leg to pee. Some are more sophisticated than others — one Cocker Spaniel has a Facebook page and a few Nova Scotia Retrievers have a Twitter account for trolling ducks.

Almost all of them are civilized, well-mannered middle-class dogs, no aristocrats. None live in a purse, or are carried under the arm of a bejewelled woman dressed in fur. These are courteous, agreeable dogs. When their owner meets another walker on our road and says, “It’s a lovely day,” their dog nods in agreement. They have names like Henry, Charlie and Skipper. Most are trained only to growl at Liberals and vegetarians. One ill-tempered dog named Cromwell barks exclusively at Irish people and atheists.

Some eat organically and chew only on bones grown locally. None of our neighbourhood dogs wear a Fitbit or use a step counter (would it multiply by four?) and when they get tired of walking, they sit down — evidence that they are smarter than the one at the other end of the leash. These dogs are generally healthy and useful in a variety of ways (dogs can find anything — Megan and Harry are bringing along their beagle and black Lab to help them find financial independence in Canada, and the beagle can help with security). A few yappy dogs are suffering from attention deficit disorder, some are neurotic, some are on medication. A few of these dogs are hypochondriacs (let loose, they run to the vet for every little thing).

We have multicultural, free-thinking dogs unfettered by custom and convention. Mainlanders own Newfoundland dogs named Crosbie or Smallwood. Not all the Irish Setters support the Republic, not all the Bull Terriers are monarchists. The sheepdogs do not flaunt their intellect. The black dogs are not all depressed. One neighbourhood dog recently emigrated from China — her arrival unsullied with tariffs or balance of trade issues. Since her arrival in Canada, Penny (from Hang Zhou, pop. 9 million) has not spoken a word of Mandarin Chinese. She has made new friends, has joined the kennel club, and is now fully integrated into our quiet suburban neighbourhood.

For the most part, dog owners take care of business. Even those who are careful to sanitize the handle of the shopping cart at Sobeys have no trouble stooping to the shoulder of the road to collect their dog shitzu in inverted blue bags. You have to appreciate this.

My wife and I do not own a dog in a community where everyone else does. We are outliers and therefore unqualified to comment on the virtues and consolations of dog ownership.

My limited knowledge of canine attitudes and behaviours was heavily influenced (years ago) by a high school teacher who believed that the reason dogs were put on this Earth was to enrich the English language. He also believed that — through dog-related idioms, metaphors and figures of speech — a bountiful canine wisdom is imparted to civilization.

This eccentric English teacher was named Thomas Bernard. He was a bachelor who shared living space with a golden Labrador named Nipper. When he wasn’t talking about Nipper, Mr. Bernard taught us English literature. He told us with pride how he read The Chronicle Herald to his dog in the evenings after supper, and before bed, some Shakespeare.

The most memorable thing about Mr. Bernard was that he thought the wisdom of the ages could be summed up in a few dog clichés. Although most of his stuff was hackneyed and well-worn, he was relentless; he couldn’t lay off the dog references. He was like a dog with a bone.

Some days, he had a hang-dog face (when he was dog-tired), but most of the time, he was as happy as a butcher’s dog. He didn’t want you missing any time unless you were as sick as a dog, but when you came back, he claimed he hadn’t seen us in a dog’s age. He advised against putting on the dog.

Politicians were as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. His aunt Mary was so ugly he wouldn’t take her to a dog show (for fear she’d win). When his feet were sore, his dogs were barking. He referenced a dog-eared dictionary (the library was down the hall, dog-leg to the left) and he loved the dog days of summer. If we passed in an incoherent paper, it was labelled “a dog’s breakfast;” if we complained about a mark, we were “barking at the moon.” A weak excuse drew a comment like “that dog don’t hunt” or “we should be careful what we ask for because any dog that will give you a bone will take one away. And don’t be like a dog chasing a mail truck; you might catch up to it, and then what?”

Mr. Bernard also had dog parables, raising dog wisdom to biblical proportions. Although he gave us a lot of freedom (a dog let run loose isn’t as likely to run away), he advised us about the dangers of stipulated reality. “You can’t just make stuff up,” he’d say. Mr. Bernard had a riddle to illustrate this truth.

“Tell me this,” he’d say. “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” He then assured us, the answer is four (not five), because “calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Apparently, you can’t make something true just by saying it is. This is irrefutable dog wisdom. (At the time, it didn’t seem profound, but these days, a few political types would do well to remember it.)

Mr. Bernard also cautioned us about the nature of gratuitous criticism. We should be careful when casting aspersions, he said, because “If you kick a dog in the ass, you had better be prepared to deal with her teeth. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

Mr. Bernard was a saint. He always wore a hound’s-tooth jacket. It’s unfortunate he wasn’t allowed to wear a small keg of brandy around his neck.

At home, my desk faces the street. During the time I write this prattle, three dog walkers have passed my window. The first is a young woman who lives on the next street over. I can’t remember her name — Mary something. Her white dog looks like a little lamb and follows her everywhere.

Not long after, a friend of mine is passing by with his Shetland Sheepdog named Gibson. Gibson is taking his owner (a Cape Bretoner) for a walk, teaching him the route and who’s in charge.

Gibson and his relatives (the Shelties) get along well with the McGregors, the McDonalds, the McIntyres and other highland clans because of their shared geography. Gibson’s canine ancestors are from the Shetland Islands in the most northerly part of Scotland. Gibson and his proprietor share a natural affinity for parsimony, sheep and Scotch (just a wee drop taken, you know, hair of the dog). Gibson takes care of his owner. His genetic heritage has taught him to retrieve errant sheep back to the flock.

Recent research indicates that over time, dogs and owners begin to share personality traits. They not only start to look like each other, they begin to act like one another — mutually influenced by the aggression, equanimity or indifference shown by the other. Apparently, a thoughtful dog can make you a better person.

Gibson and his master are well groomed, properly shorn, and reasonably healthy, but both are accumulating years faster than they’d like. So far, neither of them sheds or drools, but this will come soon enough. They watch what they eat. Both are non-smokers. There is some potential for weight gain. They share a conservative perspective. Gibson doesn’t mind barking at dogs bigger than he is. He barks truth to power.

At the other end of our street, a friend of mine shares living space with a chocolate Lab. Roxy is a lovely dog — portly, lumpy and flatulent. She doesn’t bark much anymore — Roxy has learned about the indifference of the world; nobody’s listening anyway. She is wise and insightful and she has a sense of humour. She lives a dog’s life without objection. She knows people are flawed, but doesn’t worry about it.

Some days, Roxy looks tired, because (like me) she is afflicted by old age and inertia. At home, she lies on the floor shedding hair, passing gas, and lumbering from one room to another. Roxy is my favourite dog. Roxy and I are kindred spirits.

William J. Kilfoil lives in Mineville, Nova Scotia.

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