Nov. 17, 2008
By Tim SandersSomeone asked me, not long ago, why a serious journalist would waste time writing about his dog. My immediate answer was "I dunno, if I run across a serious journalist I’ll ask him." After some sober reflection, however, I came to the conclusion that it is all Lassie’s fault.
When I was a youngster, the TV show "Lassie" was a big hit. Initially Lassie’s owner was a boy named Jeff, who was dumb as a box full of hair. [NOTE: The phrase "dumb as a box full of hair" was provided by Post Publisher David ‘Chip’ Crawford, who said I could borrow it as long as I gave him full credit.] Fortunately Jeff had his very cerebral pet collie to extricate him from the perils he encountered every week. If Jeff wasn’t diving headlong into a quicksand bog, he was riding his bicycle off a cliff, or getting his leg caught in a muskrat trap. If I remember correctly, once he even got caught in a burning mineshaft due to an innocent experiment with a mass of spider webs, some kerosene and a box of kitchen matches. But always there to assess the situation and offer assistance was good old Lassie, who understood the principles of engineering and physics and could run to the barn, fetch a length of log chain, and use it, along with a complicated system of levers and pulleys, to rescue poor, simple-minded Jeff from that mineshaft before the rest of the family had even finished their Ovaltine.
Then one season something happened to Lassie. She wound up with another family and an altogether different little boy. I never saw the episode that explained the abrupt transition from Jeff and his family to Timmy and his clan, but my guess is that Jeff had a growth spurt during the summer, and the dog decided that she wasn’t about to drag some 150 lb. teenager around by the scruff of his neck every week. Fending off wolverines and digging tiny children out of mudslides was one thing, but there was nothing in her contract about breaking up bar fights and riding around in the back of that pickup truck while Jeff practiced his high speed turns at the county racetrack. So Jeff’s family probably ran an ad in the local paper:
Are you a struggling farm family with failing crops and ramshackle outbuildings? Do you have an accident-prone boy with no discernable IQ? If so, then we have just the dog for you!
And thus Jeff and his feebleminded family morphed into Timmy and his feebleminded family, while Lassie remained the Einstein of the bunch. Week after week, Lassie would show up at the back door, barking that old familiar bark which always meant Timmy was in trouble somewhere. And week after week, whichever family members were not preoccupied counting head lice would rush to the back door and say, "What is it, girl? Has something happened to Timmy?" The neighbor’s chickens, the houseplants, and the pump handle all knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that something had happened to Timmy, just like something happened to Timmy every single stinking time he ventured outside, but Mom and Dad were never sure, and always seemed awfully surprised when they found out.
"I think Lassie’s trying to tell us that something’s happened to Timmy! What do you think?"
"Well, my goodness, you may be right. I actually believe something might have happened to Timmy."
"I’ll bet he’s been fooling around with that chemistry set and started a fire in the outhouse again."
"Or maybe he fell down the well. He hasn’t done that in a while."
"Well, for all of our pieces of mind, I guess we should follow her."
"Uh ... hey, where is she? AND WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?"
"Oh, look, she’s loaded the block-and-tackle, the Coleman lantern, the fire extinguisher, the chain saw and the first aid kit into the truck.”
So those of us who were raised on weekly episodes of "Lassie" developed some very unrealistic expectations when it came to our dogs. There was obviously genius lurking behind those sad, doleful eyes, and a massive, untapped intellect nestled between those long, floppy ears. And I refer to our dogs here, not ourselves. We knew there was no massive intellect nestled anywhere between our long, floppy ears. We gave our dogs much more credit than they deserved, and I suppose we still do.
Take our dachshund Maggie, for example. As far as understanding complex instructions, Lassie always understood "Run to the storage shed and get the spare canoe paddle hanging on the wall to your right, girl! The padlock combination is 7-12-82!" Maggie, on the other hand, would pay no attention to us or our drifting canoe unless we included the words "chicken strip" in our instructions.
To her credit, however, Maggie has learned pig latin, which I’m sure Lassie never mastered. Marilyn and I noticed long ago that whenever we mentioned the words "chicken strip," Maggie’s ears would perk up and she’d run directly to the cupboard. Not to be outsmarted by a mere dachshund, however, we countered by using pig latin. Unfortunately Maggie now knows exactly what "ickenchay ipstray" means, and has also familiarized herself with the word "iscuitbay."
And if we had a 60 ft. open well in our back yard and I were, through no fault of my own, to fall into it, Maggie’s reaction would be nothing like Lassie’s.
LASSIE (Marshaling all her vast intellectual powers): "I believe I heard a splash. That means I must go tell Marilyn that Tim has fallen down the well, and then fetch a stout rope for her to use to extract him."
MAGGIE (Marshaling her single brain cell): "Gosh, Daddy’s disappeared, and he was here a minute ago. That means I must go roll on that dead worm, scoot around in circles on my butt, and then run to the back door and bark until Mommy gives me an ickenchay ipstray.”
And as for long term dog memory, while Lassie always went directly to the exact spot where Timmy dropped the compass ten minutes earlier and brought it back to him, we still give Maggie high marks for locating the exact spot where she pooped four days ago, and for using that information to decide the critical issue of whether to poop there again, or scout out new territory.
Come to think of it, we may not be a whole lot smarter than Lassie’s family.