Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Destry at 10

Des turns 10 this week. For Rhodesian ridgebacks, that's not young. He's probably got two or three years left at the most, but it's hard to say, because ridgebacks go fast. You don't see a ridgeback who needs five pills three times a day. One day they are healthy, the next day, they are gone. This is a bit of a blessing, because who wants to watch a dog suffer? But it also makes you nervous when your dog gets to a certain age, because you won't get much warning when the curtain is about to come down.

So I watch him turn white, and I worry about him, but I also enjoy him, knowing that we'll probably have a good time together right up to the end.

Destry is such a sweetheart that I often forget that he is the most impossible dog I have ever owned.

When I was looking for a new dog, to replace the amazing Mr. O'Malley, my first ridgeback, I told breeders I would be happy with a pet-quality, over-sized, hyper-alpha male. That was, after all, what I was used to.

A breeder in Massachusetts got in touch, saying she had the perfect puppy for me: He had only one crown in his ridge. These are the cobra-hood-like marks at the top of the ridge -- you need to have two swirls, so that, with only one, he was definitely a pet-quality dog. And he was very much an alpha -- he refused to socialize with the other pups and went his own way.

So I went down to meet him, when he was about five weeks old (that's the picture on the left, above). Only he failed his temperament test: When I rolled him onto his back, instead of fighting to his feet like a good alpha, he was pleased to have his belly scratched. The breeder was surprised, and so was I.

It turned out that his independence was not the result of a strong alpha personality -- it was because he simply didn't care what the rest of the pack was doing. It didn't register on his radar.

I should have walked away from this pup: There is no bigger challenge than training a dog who has no sense of peer pressure, of pack structure. If he doesn't care what everyone else is doing, you have virtually nothing to hold over him. This dog could have been impossible, and to some extent he was, and is.

Do dogs live up to their names? I named him Destry, after the Jimmy Stewart character who comes into town forced to live up to his father's reputation as a straight-shooting, no-nonsense lawman. This pup was following a very special dog and I wanted a name that would remind me that he didn't have to be O'Malley, that he was entitled to carve for himself.

And, boy, did he. And he lived up to the name in that he is so laid back that he makes Jimmy Stewart look like the guy in the Federal Express commercials.

Destry is frustrating to walk with because he lags back, sniffing this or that, looking at whatever interests him and generally going his own way. If you yell at him to catch up, he has no idea why you're so upset -- either he acts like nothing is happening, or, if you finally do get through to him, he's completely panicked and has no idea why you are so angry. There's no point in losing your temper because you only frighten the dog and you don't in any way change his behavior.

What saves him is his gentle, kindly manner. He is without a doubt the nicest dog I've ever known. He is a big (130 pounds), bumbling, gentle giant, and, yeah, he's kind of dumb, in a genial, self-effacing way. He doesn't like to cuddle, but he does come up to you and lay his enormous head against you for a scritch, and he is so completely gentle with my granddaughters that I absolutely love him, as they do.

Oddly enough, however, under all that goofball exterior, there is a ridgeback.

A few years back, when he was about two, a group of us used to run into each other on the paths in a wooded area in Glens Falls. One of the dogs in the group was an obnoxious, pushy little border collie named Bandit, who would pick on Destry for the entire walk. His owner refused to discipline him, saying, "They'll work it out," and I must confess that I often wished for Destry to lose his temper, grab that damned dog by the neck and shake him into submission.

But it never happened. Destry would cringe and submit and let Bandit shove him around, and what eventually resolved it was that the fellow got a job in another city and moved away.

A year later, however, Nellie Bly joined us. At the time, she was a year-old bitch who had spent much of her life in kennels and had a lot of enthusiasm but not a lot of discipline. She was, however, well trained and I was working on getting her used to life as a companion dog, when, one day, we were out in those same woods and she went enthusiasitically bounding up to a large German shepherd whose owner was saying, "He's not friendly -- get your dog away!"

Sure enough, the dog broke away from her and attacked little Nell. And that was when I realized that Destry really could live up to that Jimmy Stewart name -- he was between them before the shepherd had finished pouncing. He took the fangs in his own shoulder and turned on the dog swiftly. I was able to get there in time to prevent an actual fight, but Destry had shown that, while he didn't mind being picked on himself, nobody was going to mess with his niece Nellie.

After that, I looked on his laid-back, goofy attitude with a different perspective. Like his namesake, Thomas Jefferson Destry, he had earned his right to hang up his guns and insist that violence doesn't solve anything.

So now, when he's lagging behind, sniffing the flowers and absent-mindedly shuffling along at his own pace while Ziwa and I are trying to keep some kind of sensible pace on the trail, do I get angry and frustrated with him?

Of course. This dog absolutely drives me out of my mind.

But he also reminds me of another movie, a short one that I loved as a kid, long before I knew who Jimmy Stewart even was.

Anyway, happy birthday, Des, you kindly old farthound. Many, many happy returns of the day.


Sherwood Harrington said...

What a wonderful post, Mike. Thank you.

The only difficulty is posed by those very shiny objects you sprinkled through the piece. It took me quite a while to get through, because I kept getting distracted by the likes of Crockett Johnson's characters and Lambert. And, oh look! -- there's John Moschitta!

What a great name, too -- I hadn't known where it came from, but it's perfect for the reason you chose it. I may have to steal the idea sometime down the line; Kelsey's getting very gray around the muzzle now, but I'm not going to think about that further today.

Here's hoping Destry has many more walks and no more German shepherd teeth in his future.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

8~) And with that great Lambert short (That's one i don't remember) you got me looking up more about Bill Peet - i knew his books but did not know he was such a driving force behind the best of Disney, and especially my all-time fav, 101 Dalmations (the real one).

And who could resist that pup? A very happy b'day to Destry.

ronnie said...

A great post :) I knew the origin of Destry's name, but not why you chose it. It's perfect.

And what memories Lambert brought back!! It was one of my Mom's favourite Disney movies and she used to sing the song from it to us when we were just little things. It has a special place in my heart as a result.