blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Dogs with Agency

She was a rescue dog and had no known name. Because it was the first place she sniffed out when I brought her home, I named her for the creek that is the back border of my land: Neville. A name usually reserved for males, but the naming of dogs is not necessarily governed by convention. The name can be whimsical, irrational, dedicated to a person or place, or drawn from a hat. And it will probably be capable of abbreviation. Or not. Spot. See Spot run. Or played upon: Neville answered to Nev-Nev, Nevy, even Noodle.

A veterinarian friend who was on duty at the rescue center had called to say that I should come see if I wanted this dog. They were euthanizing rescue dogs due to overcrowding. She said that she had taken one look at the dog in the lineup and knew that she could not put a needle in her. I went, saw her, and without the least hesitation, fetched her straightway to my home. Saved her from what I call the needle line.

Neville was a mixed breed, but she had strong Boykin spaniel features. Whit Boykin of South Carolina experimented with different breeds to develop a relatively small retriever, especially for working from a boat. The dog that won’t rock the boat. To my amusement and joy, Neville rocked my boat every day for a number of years before she passed on.

Although she suffered with separation anxiety for a while when I first brought her home, she slowly came out of it. But initially, desperate to follow me when I left the trailer I was living in, she would literally bloody her claws trying to free herself from an enclosure I had arranged. Her anxiety apparently contributed to incontinence, so I could not leave her to roam freely in the trailer, a single wide that I had leased and put on my land while my house was being built.

The single wide was a standard seventy feet long, and it afforded a freeway down the middle, from my study on one end, through the living room and kitchen, to the bedroom on the other end. Once Neville became comfortable with her new life, she would spontaneously light out running, using the freeway as a kind of racetrack, back and forth from one end to the other. She showed that same spontaneity and free spirit outside on my four acres, running full tilt, wide circle after wide circle.

I could never determine her true age. Nor could she tell me that or her original name. When she died, my friend Jane and I dug a grave for her beside my garden, put her on a bed of pine straw, and covered her. She is watched over by a small concrete angel that Jane gave me. To summon a touch of levity in hopes of assuaging the sadness of the occasion, we christened the angel as the Guardian Angel, given its proximity to the garden.

Jane says that Neville had an otherworldly quality. “I always doubted that she was a dog. She was certainly the least doggy dog I ever knew. I thought her a spirit, an Independent Spirit, in the form of a dog. She hailed from another dimension.” I’m thinking that a needle line will do that. Alter the spiritual equation. No longer a doggy dog.

My current dog is an English cocker spaniel. It is commonly held that the name cocker comes from the association with the dog’s hunting of woodcock in England. With limited success, I am trying to make a house dog out of a hunting dog. She will chase just about anything that moves—deer that appear out of the mist shrouding the creek bottom, squirrels that bury nuts in my porch planters, butterflies, skinks, on and on. The rabbit that comes out of the bushes every morning to graze drives her into a frenzy. I once had to prise from her mouth a small bird that she was trying to eat whole. It had flown against my window and was lifeless on the ground.

I named her Summa, a spin on the name of her sire Sumo. He was named Sumo because of his waddle as a puppy. I first saw him at my friends Charles and Tricia’s place in Nova Scotia and was smitten immediately by his demeanor. Just before Charles and I departed for Quebec to fly-fish, Sumo brought a dead muskrat from the pond and placed it on the porch. When we arrived at the fishing lodge, Tricia called to say that she had tried to dispose of the muskrat but Sumo grabbed it and took it under the Tahoe. A dog with agency. That’s when I asked Charles to put me on the list for a puppy if he bred Sumo.

Sumo is registered with the American Kennel Club. I had Summa spayed and since she would not be producing litters, valuable though they may have been, I did not register her. Had I registered her, she would be listed as Summa Cum Laude. Sumo’s AKC papers show him to be Sumo of Seafields. Summa was sired by him with dam Nitro Proof Sky Blue. Or Skippy.

My former wife and I gave our sons a corgi puppy one Christmas. The naming was simple enough—Saint Nicholas. Or Nicky. After we registered him with the AKC, I saw on his Litter Certificate that his forbears in the UK had names like Devereaux of Montjoy and so on. After the Atlantic crossing the progeny took on names that were truer to our republic. Cocoa Pebbles, for instance. The name Saint Nicholas, though, would seem to strike a fairer deal with the Devereauxs.

To be fair to the British, I should note that Queen Elizabeth II gave names such as: Emma, Linnet, Willow, and Holly to her corgis. That is not to say that the corgis do not have more royal names listed with the UK Kennel Club. One of Elizabeth’s early corgis was registered as Windsor Loyal Subject. Another was registered as Hickathrift Pippa. She was called Susan, and according to an article in Vanity Fair she rode to Scotland, hidden under blankets, with Elizabeth on her honeymoon. Susan later gave birth to Sugar and Honey, who whelped Bee. Sugar was dam to Whisky and Sherry. In later years there was a tonal shift to less contrived names. What we commoners would call “hound names,” such as Jet and Spark.

I have a “List of hounds owned by Paul J. Rainey Estate, Cotton Plant, Miss. Nov. 1, 1923” that provides a resonant sense of hound names. Buster, Queenie, Rattler, Rooster, Taters, Pearl, Light, Two Spot, the list goes on, fifty names, including an annotation for Claud: “After efect [sic] of distemper leaves them worthless.”

Paul Rainey was a playboy and sportsman who, in addition to his huge estate in Mississippi, owned 26,000 acres in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, near Avery Island, the McIlhenny’s Tabasco headquarters. Rainey corresponded regularly with the maker of the iconic sauce, Ned McIlhenny, mostly about dogs and wildlife. (Rainey once sent McIlhenny a pony, and in return McIlhenny sent Rainey “two alligators, one six feet, one seven feet.” and on another occasion two coops of Mallard ducks. In a break from the exchange of animals, McIlhenny noted in his letter regarding the ducks that he was also shipping Rainey “a case each of shrimp, syrup, Creole Dinner, and fig preserves.”)

It is notable how these men were keenly aware of dog names from each’s kennel. And specific features. McIlhenny writes Rainey about one of Rainey’s lost dogs, “ . . . the man I sent after the dog supposed to be ‘Sandy’ returned the dog, but I am sure it is not sandy [sic]. The dog is [a] heavy set hound with [a] big head and short heavy legs, blind in one eye but jet black, with the exception of the feet which are tan, and I never saw this dog in your pack.” A week or so later, after McIlhenny has found the true Sandy and sent him to Rainey, Rainey replies, “I got old Sandy back alright, and was very glad to do it as I think a lot of the old fool.”

For me, the most poignant instance of the separation of dog and master is Homer’s account of Ulysses’ return home after twenty years of absence. His old dog Argos recognizes him in his beggar’s disguise on his approach to his home, where his wife Penelope’s suitors are lying about, wining and dining on palatial fare, and bidding for Penelope’s hand. Because Ulysses intends to slay the suitors, he cannot reveal that he knows Argos for fear his identity will become evident. As Ulysses passes by, the aged dog pricks his ears but hasn’t the strength to drag himself toward Ulysses. He gives a thump of the tail and then breathes his last. Ulysses brushes away a tear and goes on to deal with the suitors.

I was not granted a farewell wag of the tail from my first dog, a gallant collie. He was hit by a car, and I did not discover his body until I returned home from school. I had picked his name from a hat four years earlier: Mike. I have no memory of the possible names in the hat nor any notion of how we came up with a name so utterly remote from names in my family or among my friends. But I welcomed the name and my new companion. A boy’s dream. He joined in neighborhood games, accompanied me across the treacherous pasture on our way to the swimming hole, always gauging our distance from the bull that would charge us, ran beside my bike with great canine brio, played chase, chased balls, came when called.

To come when called. Mike. There alongside Devereaux, Hickathrift Pippa, the truant Sandy, Saint Nicholas, Neville, Argos, the others. And Summa in the host of the quick, alert to any call or motion. Each named with purpose, intent, albeit sometimes hidden or unknown. But all of them born ready to be our companions, as all good dogs are.  

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