Sunday, July 1, 2007


July is vacation season. On the first day of the month, I call my mom to see how she has been since hers. It’s been two weeks since she visited, and I still haven’t heard from her. When we speak, she is polite but distant. I worry our debates cut deeper than I thought. We chatter about superficialities—our flower gardens, the weather, my dad’s travel. I tell her I am about to embark upon a 3-day trip aboard the Angelique, a stunning tall-masted ship and part of the Maine Windjammer Association. I’ll be writing about the ship for a regional newspaper, alternating between client and crew for the 72-hour voyage. This piques her interest, and she asks me to tell her more. I explain that each year, these classic sailing ships carry nearly 10,000 vacationers in and out of the islands in the Penobscot Bay. The ships are known not only for the unadulterated views they offer, but also for their conservation of Maine’s island network.
What they’re not known for is being dog friendly, so Greg agrees to take Ari with him on a river trip. He’ll return for a few days to restock his supplies and rendezvous with me; then the three of us will return to the mountains together.
I return from my nautical adventure invigorated and purged of any care or woe. Greg’s clenched jaw tells me his trip has been considerably less cathartic. He listens politely as I spin yarns about knots and island life, but I can tell his mind is elsewhere. After he casts a third tired look in the direction of Ari, I begin to catch his drift.
“The pup,” I ask. “What is it?”
“She’s crazy. I don’t know what to do with her.”
I look again at Ari, who is curled up and snoring in a nook near the woodstove. Her nose and whiskers twitch lightly as she enters a REM cycle. She is the model of docility. “She doesn’t look out of control,” I say gently.
“That’s the thing about her,” Greg says. He has the aura of a conspiracy theorist. He lowers his voice and narrows his eyes, casting them in the direction of the sleeping dog. “She can change.”
I try not to laugh. “You mean like a vampire?”
“Vampires don’t change. You’re thinking of werewolves. And that’s what we have here.” He considers the hyperbole and decides it is too much. “Sort of a werewolf,” he corrects. “More like a wolf in sheep’s clothes. Or a coyote in dog clothes. You know what I mean.”
I have no idea. But I soon learn.
While I was cruising the coast and making new friends, Greg and Ari arrived at his favorite riverside campground on the banks of the Penobscot River—a truly wild place in the northern half of the state filled with thick forest and miles of unsettled white water. There, they met with other paddling friends, a handful of children, and a persnickety cat named Friendly. The grown-ups agreed to a staggered kayaking schedule so that kids, canine, and cat could be supervised at all times. During their down time, Greg and Ari took a quick swim in the river and wandered about the campsite, chatting with new friends. Ari was unleashed, and that seemed to suit them both fine. When it was Greg’s turn to paddle, he left Ari and her leash in the care of our friend Brent. For about an hour or so, Ari hung close to Brent, wading in the river with him and even taking a 3-mile hike. That, she decided, was enough domesticity for one day.
“He said you could see it in her eye,” Greg says. “A little switch was thrown somewhere. She turned into a wild dog.”
“Ferocious?” I try to picture this snoring little creature turning into a werewolf. Even knowing her propensity for willful mischief, it’s impossible.
“Not ferocious,” Greg explains. “Just wild. Totally uncatchable.”
Apparently when people began returning to the campsite after a day of adventure, Brent decided it would be safest to leash up the pup. But Ari wasn’t about to go gently down that road.
Each time Brent moved toward her, she’d scuttle just out of reach. When he took a step back, she’d crouch forward and give a play bark, trying to lure him into lunging at her. When he did, she’d leap away. He tried bribing her with bologna slices, making a little trail of them around the campsite, but she managed to steal all the lunch meat before he could grab her collar. He tried acting disinterested and went to read a book. She accompanied him, making sure he knew she was tantalizingly close but would not be caught.
“This went on for three hours,” Greg tells me. “Three hours. Brent was about ready to kill her, he was so frustrated. And he works with prisoners for a living.”
“I know where Brent works,” I remind him. “And don’t forget, the fundamental difference here is that most prisoners can’t escape. He doesn’t have to catch them.”
Greg fails to see the humor in this last observation. “Brent calls her coy-dog now, you know. He thinks she’s going to run off with her coyote forbearers. He says we better watch out.”
After four full months of canine research, I am positively brimming with information on this subject. I eagerly unleash a stream of what I am certain is fascinating information. I tell Greg that evolutionary biologists have, in fact, confirmed reproduction between domestic dogs and Eastern coyotes. Scientists used to believe that such coupling only happened when it was necessitated by breeding pressures (in other words, when there were no other likely mates to be found). Now, however, they’re beginning to think it’s just another tale of star-crossed lovers. Radio-collared coyotes have been observed instigating play with domestic dogs for years now—wrestling, pouncing, and play biting, all using universal dog cues that say, ‘this is a game.’ A well-known study followed one hapless coyote who tried repeatedly to mate with a golden retriever in Nebraska. In the end, she seemed fairly receptive, though her owners certainly weren’t. They chased the coyote away. A few months later, he was shot and killed by a hunter.
This story sounds like the canine world’s version of West Side Story . It makes me wonder how the pup would do in her own inter-species musical. I tilt my head, humming “I Feel Pretty” and trying to assess Ari’s likeness to Natalie Wood. This causes Greg to sigh heavily. My new enthusiasm for esoteric biology and classic Broadway is not mutual. Reluctantly, I return to the drama at hand.
“So,” I ask. “What happened? You got her on the leash somehow.”
“When I got back from paddling, Brent was leaving a giant trail of bologna slices around the entire campground. It was, like, two pounds of lunch meat. But coy-dog wasn’t interested. She had met another dog by then. . .”
“. . . so we waited until she was distracted by him. And then we tackled her.”
Oh dear.
Greg is clearly frustrated and probably embarrassed by this latest show of independence. The looks he casts in the pup’s direction are not warm ones. But as his voice rises, Ari stirs. She sighs and rubs her snout with both front paws, then flips onto her back and resumes her nap. My heart leaps up at this sight. How could you not love this dog?
Still, I know Greg is right. We have a bratty adolescent on our hands—and right on developmental schedule. Even with her hysterectomy, Ari is a hormonal machine right now. And that makes her a danger to herself. She has the will and strength of a mature canine, but none of an adult’s common sense. To make matters worse, dogs this age undertake some of the same rebellious tendencies seen in human teenagers. There are good evolutionary reasons for this shift: it marks a dog’s independence and ability to exist away from her litter. Still, in the human world, it’s a recipe for disaster—or a serious accident—if she decides to go romping in a busy street or the wrong person’s yard. Consequently, Greg and I agree that, caninaturalism or no, this dog will remain leashed until she graduates from this phase. All three of us hope that commencement day will be very soon.