Text & Photos by Bill Emory

(C) Copyright 1999, 2000 Bill Emory

"What is it, girl?" Or words to that effect, echoing down 40 years.

Lassie, the amazing dog, a cultural antecedent shared by me and William Jefferson Blythe, the forty-second President of the United States. Lassie was a dog, a series of dogs, a TV show-dog; she was Columbo and Mister Rogers with four feet.

Lassie would start barking, to which the Human Response was always "what is it girl?" And Lassie, being a collie, would point her prodigious snout toward the trouble.

Lassie's blond-haired human interlocutor Timmy would thus be given direction and, weekly, another mystery was solved.

Imagine Timmy and Lassie visiting Betty Currie. Lassie is scratching furiously on the door of the Oval Office, bark-bark- barking, "What is it girl?" Oh Timmy, you don't want to know!

But Lassie would have saved the Republic a lot of trouble. Lassie would have delivered the pizza, put a toothy quietus to Blythe and the girl.

A note about Collies: Content Collies are quiet, but the discontent Collie broadcasts her troubles.

My neighbors left town for a year, leaving their juvenile dog in the care of house sitters. The Collie didn't like being left behind and every day would go to the side yard of the house and bark, nonstop. Saying, not "the man who stole baby went that-a-way," or "the water is rising and a child is stuck in the creek." Nope. This dog was saying, "it sucks it sucks it sucks" and she said it for a year.

She said it every way she knew how. But she didn't have the human agents critical to resolving her abandonment.

Lassie could turn doorknobs; with the advent of touch-tone phones, she'd have dialed 911. But this neighborhood dog wasn't Lassie. She was a barking yard ornament.

Nine out of ten people have no business with a dog.

My dog's name is April. April and her littermates were abandoned by their dog-as-yard-ornament owner on the side of Route 22 in rural Virgina.

Route 22 is a 55 mph two land road that cuts through the heart of Central Virginia, a speed corridor for jacked-up big-wheel Toyota trucks. The macadam path to the store where people buy their Red Man and take dead deer to be registered and admired during hunting season.

The owner of the postpartum bitch had a heart one step warmer than "put the yammering pups in a croaker sack and toss it in the Rivanna River." April and her litter mates were set on the shoulder of Route 22 in a box. They were rescued before the death by rubber.

There are no amazing stories about April. She hasn't saved a child who wandered off from home at night. She hasn't barked an owner awake in the early moments of a house fire.

She has no inventory of stupid dog tricks. She can't, like my grandfather's dog, sit on her haunches and salute. She isn't bipedal, like the Abominable Poodle, walking everywhere on her hind legs.

When walking, if April sees something to investigate, she'll accelerate with enough force to render the human on the responsible end of the leash horizontal. She has the power. She can jerk the head of the humerus, the arm, out of the glenohumeral fossa. Sixty-seven pounds of Black Dog.

April likes everyone, dogs and people. She adores the mailman.

Dogs are essentially decent creatures but they are open to the experience served on them by the world and respond, often inappropriately, to what they receive.

If I beat my dog, "quit barking you damn bitch", the dog response to that drubbing might well be to maul the next-door neighbor's child. Go figure. Dog ownership requires responsibility.

As a puppy, my previous dog was subjected to a negative thunderstorm experience, chained outside during a hailstorm. She was terrorized, she forgave me but she never forgave the weather.

I paid for my early irresponsible behavior throughout the 12 years of her life. I stayed up many summer nights, shepherding her through thunder. Protection required a conscious human in the room. Unconscious humans were no shield against the thunder and ice god.

You pay for what you don't do for a dog. For what you do, for kindness, you receive undying loyalty and affection.

That is the contract. Simple. No pre-nup, no grandious statements of intention.

When the thunder rolls, April and I sit on the screen porch and smell the ozone, watch gusting winds reveal the underside of leaves, watch lightening freeze innumerable fat raindrops in their course downward. April likes a thunderstorm, Thunderstorms mean we are together.

Being a dog owner in the Nineties is no picnic, it is one step above being a smoking pariah. No general acceptance of the old Roman "Love me, love my dog." In the Nineties there is a new treatment of dogshit. Pick it up. Who picks up Buddy's shit? Where does this go in the White House? The President isn't seen walking with a pooper-scooper.

My drunken course on dog walks through the neighborhood is driven not by alcohol but by hard-learned experience as to neighbors' opinions of dogshit. I stay away from the yards of people who become apoplectic if the dog leaves a load with them. I have accepted the dog-owner equivalent of smoking outside, picking up the shit.


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