Mon 7 Sep 2009
Four years ago while I still published The Point Reyes Light, readers on their own gave birth to a new genre of first-person writing, Tall Tales of Intelligent Dogs.
The genre faded shortly before the grand old newspaper changed ownership, but the tales have now inspired me to try replicating with wildlife around my cabin what West Marin residents had reported accomplishing with their pets.
Good table manners being a sine qua non for participating in polite society, last week I began teaching the local possum proper dining etiquette.
“I am teaching my dog to drive,” Ed Fielding of Bolinas wrote in a June 9, 2005, letter to the editor of The Light. “I am 81 years old, and my strength is ebbing, my reflexes are slowing, my vision is fading, and my hearing is deteriorating. The qualities I am losing my dog Juno possesses in superb degree. She is a 145-pound Rhodesian ridgeback – strong, quick, and very intelligent.
“I have made special metal cups and attached two of these to the steering wheel in the recommended ‘10-to-2’ position. The cups are well padded so that her front paws fit snugly, and she is able to steer the car with ease. I have also modified the accelerator and the brake pedal. With her long legs and great strength, she has no trouble operating these two mechanisms.”
It was an obvious spoof, but Fielding presented it with flair. “[Juno] just loves driving the car,” he wrote, “and the highlight of her day is when she gets behind the wheel and we go for a short spin. Of course, she drives with her head out the window, a habit I have been unable to break, but it seems to be no problem, and she handles the car with skill….
“If any readers of this letter have also taught their dogs to drive, I would appreciate hearing from you…”
The Light never heard from anyone else teaching his dog to drive, but the next issue carried a letter from David Miller of Inverness Park, who wrote, “I was pleased to learn from Ed Fielding’s letter that there are others who are training their pets to handle moving vehicles. In my case, I have been training my dog Bela to ride a bicycle.
“It all started when I would ride my bike and Bela would run on the path beside me on a leash. So many times I would hear angry people telling me I should get off the bike and let Bela ride that I decided that if I trained Bela to ride, we could mountain bike together and avoid the scorn of passersby…
“Bela is still on training wheels, and I have had to address a few mechanical problems. For example, I had to deal with her tail. It was always getting caught in the spokes of the back wheel. I solved that problem by tying a string to her tail and connecting it to her collar. I had to make sleeves on the handlebars into which she could comfortably slide her front legs for steering. Bela uses her mouth to manipulate the hand brake.”
Miller went on to say that his “real problem” is the policy of local parks to prohibit mountain bikes on certain trails and dogs on others, leaving Bela with few choices. This letter writer too asked to hear from others in his situation.
No other owners of canine mountain bikers responded, but Robin Bradford of Bolinas on June 30 wrote, “For quite some time, Frank and Winston, my Yorkshire Terriers, have tried to convince me to allow them free access to our Toro gasoline-powered lawn mower. Naturally, I refused….
“Recently, Frank and Winston brought me the letters to the editor from The Point Reyes Light written by Ed Fielding and David Miller. I can tell you, some fairly biting accusations were hurled… [and] I finally acquiesced.
“Much to my surprise, Frank and Winston operated the Toro as though they’d been doing it for years, which it turned out they had been. My teenage son had been taking the credit (and the allowance) for the job for an extended period of time, but it was actually Winston at the steering wheel and Frank running ahead to ensure straight lines on the grass…”
Through no effort on its part, The Light had suddenly become a weekly publisher of tall tales of canine cunning, all written in the form of letters to the editor.
Carl Dern of Stinson Beach on July 14, 2005, wrote, “I taught my dog Billie to weld. I realized that she had a great interest in welding when she was a pup because she would hang around my studio watching me weld. I made her a self-darkening helmet and a small leather apron so she wouldn’t hurt her eyes or burn her fur. As time went by, I noticed that she would try to nudge me away from what I was welding and try to take the welding torch from me.
“I soon caught on that she wanted to do the welding. I made her some small, padded cups for her paws to hold the welding gun. She worked the controls with her mouth and right-rear leg. I soon found myself holding the work while she welded it with beautiful precision and skill.
“Billie died last winter at the age of 16 and a half, which is 115 years human. I have not had the courage to disclose this information until now because I was afraid that I would be accused of exploitation. In my own defense, I paid Billie minimum wage and registered her as a Democrat. She voted for Kerry and missed Clinton very much. Our grandchildren inherited her estate.”
Back in 2007, I myself taught a local raccoon to tend bar. Before long it could mix a margarita, Manhattan, or martini as fast as it could shake a tail. When government began enforcing a ban on smoking in bars, however, the raccoon quit to take an outdoor job.
As the parade of talented-dog stories continued, I was amazed not merely by the phenomena itself but also by their wit. “I think too many exceptional canines have gone unrecognized because the fear of low-cost dog labor is so prevalent,” Cory Griffith of Bolinas wrote on July 28.
“My confession was especially hard to make before now because it would have cost me my job. More accurately, my dog Rona’s job. I used to work as a dishwasher and occasional cook in an unnamed Stinson restaurant…. Rona always liked to follow me around the kitchen and beg for treats.
“After we’d been together for a few years, something strange began to happen; I noticed she’d alert me with a bark whenever the water was about to boil. From there it was just a few months of practice until a dog who couldn’t crack an egg transformed into one who was putting a shrimp on the Barbie. She’d grab a whisk in her mouth, and a few hours later we’d have a beautiful cake with only a few dog hairs in the frosting.”
For the same edition, Hawk Weston of Bolinas sent in a photo of herself and her pug Scrunchie. While practicing her guitar, Weston wrote, she noticed that “Scrunchie was spending an inordinate amount of time watching my fingers – especially the left-hand chord positions…
“I decided to teach her to play folk music, figuring if I could play it, how hard could it be? Actually, it wasn’t hard at all, especially after she suggested that I lay the guitar flat on the floor so she could play it like a Dobro with a flat-pick held tightly between her tiny teeth. She also developed her signature ‘softer sound’ by brushing across the strings gently with her little tail.”
Other tales came in from Kent Goodwin of New York City, who wrote that his yellow lab Trapper had developed expertise in corporate management while living in Stinson Beach. Scott Leslie of Point Reyes Station, however, growled, “Enough already.” He suggested that all the tales of canine accomplishments indicated a dog had taken over the editor’s desk.
But virtually all other letters were in the style of one by Inverness resident Laura Brainard of Planned Feralhood (the humane program for reducing the number of stray cats). Brainard on Aug. 4 wrote she’d read the letters aloud to cats in the program’s shelter to give them “inspiration.” The cats, however, “were not impressed,” she noted.
Cats, in fact, were beginning to creep into coverage that had been limited to a dog’s world. Sandra Wallace of Inverness on July 28 wrote, “I do hope someone is making a collection of the letters recounting the accomplishments of these exceptional dogs. One of my dogs – the one that reads – is fascinated and inspired by these accounts. The cats, however, remain incredulous.”
I’d would have been incredulous about all this too had I not seen it myself. In fact, now that I’ve tried it myself, civilizing the animal world doesn’t seem that difficult.
Editor’s note: The readers’ letters were previously summarized in my Aug. 8, 2005, Sparsely Sage and Timely column in The Light. The possum-and-table-setting photo was shot Wednesday.