In the two weeks of sub-zero weather that followed the descent of an Arctic front upon the North Country in January, the wild antics of my French spaniels Abbey and Sasha have destroyed my cherished belief in the legendary canine-human bond and have made me wonder why I ever brought them into my life and home. The maniacs.
Canine cabin fever
Archaeologists and anthropologists report that men and dogs have been living together for at least 15,000 years and perhaps as long as 30,000 years. Those findings are based on a recent series of “dog centric” studies at prehistoric sites and the subsequent analysis of hundreds of artifacts and DNA samples taken from bones found at those sites.
In the course of that intertwining, 30 millennium, symbiotic relationship between the canine and hominid species, the wolf (Canis lupus) evolved from a wild carnivore that lived in self-reliant packs to the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) that became a camp follower of nomadic tribes of Asia; and mankind (Homo sapiens) evolved from a forest dwelling primate scavenger to a hunter who depended on his dogs for the survival of his tribe and preservation of his itinerant way of life. The dog would not have become what it is today without its long relationship with man, and man would not have developed into the curious creature he is today without his long relationship with the dog.
So you would think, by this point in our shared history, that each species would be genetically programmed to tolerate the other during a month of two of cloistered living in the “cave” while winter rages outside. But no. No. There is no symbiosis here. No mutual benefit. The dogs insist on having it all their way.
In the two weeks of sub-zero weather that followed the descent of an Arctic front upon the North Country in January, the wild antics of my French spaniels Abbey and Sasha have destroyed my cherished belief in the legendary canine-human bond and have made me wonder why I ever brought them into my life and home. The maniacs. And for their part, the dogs must regret the fate that matched them up with a hunter who is incapacitated by something so trivial as a couple snowstorms, cold days, and a nippy breeze. The old fud.
As evidenced by their woolly coats and snowshoe paws, Abbey and Sasha have French-Canadian ancestry. That may explain their madcap enjoyment of a romp around the farmyard on mornings when the thermometer reads 12 degrees below zero. Fahrenheit. That’s 25 degrees below zero Celsius if you are in Canada.
On a calm and sunny day, even when the temperature dips below zero, I can plod along with these two shaggy Québécois bird dogs while they run and dance and spin over the solid (for them) icy crust atop the foot-deep accumulation of snow on the woods and fields of our farm. But on a day like today, when the sky is overcast and the wind blows steadily at 10 or 15 miles per hour, I am content to sit near the woodstove and read while they stretch out and sleep on their rugs. Except they do not want to sleep in the warm kitchen, nor do they respect my contentment. They want me to take them out for a run, at least an hour, and they are most insistent.
They have different styles. Sasha nudges my arm with her nose to get my attention, 20 times in row if necessary, and stares into my face with sad, imploring eyes. Abbey bounces around me in a frantic circle and licks my face. If that fails, she thumps into me with a shoulder or hip while muttering her “wohr-wohr-oh-wohr” moans and groans. The human language translation of this blend of whines, growls, and barks is “Dogs going crazy here!”
I order them to sit, stay, lie down. They obey for about five minutes, and then the pestering begins all over again. “How about we watch a movie?” I ask. “I’ll pick one with a dog in it.” They roll their eyes in despair.
Mid-afternoon I gave in to their demands, donned four layers of winter clothes, laced up my pac boots, pulled on a stocking cap, and took them outside. During an hour’s walk through the prairie pasture they ran like crazy, rolled in the snow, found the last standing patch of burdock to matt their coats, rolled in something that would have been putrid if it had not been frozen solid, and finally collapsed panting at my feet while I touched my nose to examine its degree of frostbite. My beard and eyebrows were crusted with frost and my feet were wooden.
Thirty thousand years of dog foolishness has come home to roost. I realized this is how many a prehistoric mammoth hunter must have died, lured out of his cozy winter cave shelter and driven to exhaustion and hypothermia by the pack of canines he thought were his loyal companions.
Back in the kitchen Abbey and Sasha chewed ice balls from between their toes while my face made the transition from numb and cold to painful and fiery hot. I brewed a fresh pot of coffee and gave them each a chewy dog treat. They snatched them from my fingers like… well, like the wolves from which they descended.
“Tomorrow,” I scolded them, “we are staying inside ALL day!”
They gazed out the window with knowing eyes, seeking, searching, yearning for some sign of wildlife to chase through the south woods. Abbey turned her head toward me. “Tomorrow,” her glassy stare told me, “we hunt again!”
Somewhere along the line, thousands and thousands of years ago, this dog-human relationship took a wrong turn.
More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.