The Love That Dared Wag Its Tail

Like many dog lovers, my father was a reluctant master who let his pets have the upper hand and turned a blind eye to their faults.

This arrangement suited his favourite dog, Chester, a magnificent golden retriever. Chester was friendly and curious, with a keen zest for life, but he also had a dominant streak, which meant he could be disobedient and aggressive with other dogs.

From my father’s perspective, though, his best friend could do no wrong. I once overheard him telling his cousin Geoff, a retired CEO, “Audrey and the children think Chester’s disobedient, but he’s not. He comes when you call him – most of the time.”

“I see,” said Geoff.

“It’s not that he tries to be captain of the ship. He just is.”

“A born leader.”

“That’s right,” my father replied without a trace of irony.

As well as admiring Chester’s take-charge stance, Dad loved the dog’s high spirits and did not want to curb them or restrict his freedom with a leash. In most cities, such an attitude would meet with protest. However, my father was fortunate enough to live in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park at a time before leash laws existed.

Chester roamed freely. On walks, he would race ahead at full throttle, then double back to make sure he still had company. Mud puddles were irresistible, and he splashed into them during all seasons. Neighbours’ garbage cans provided another temptation, especially at Christmas when they overflowed with turkey carcasses, though Dad usually managed to grab Chester before he could tip one over.

For someone else, this boundingly exuberant retriever might have been a handful. But my father found his company invigorating and his exploits entertaining.

The interlude in Chester’s life that amused Dad the most involved a randy long-haired dachshund named Puccini, who belonged to a German diplomat and his wife. The couple used to walk him past my parents’ house, and that’s how he met Chester and fell for his golden good looks. Puccini was low-slung and long-bodied, with a large male appendage that just cleared the ground, adding weight to the term sausage dog.

Getting from A to B on his short legs was arduous, but this dog was not short on determination or drive. Whenever he was let out, he would waddle up the steep hill that led to our house and stand in front of the living-room window waiting for Chester.

As soon as Chester caught sight of Puccini, he began to whine and wag his tail, his way of indicating he wanted to go out to play. My father would oblige, but not without first saying: “Here’s your horrible little friend again. Well, I suppose you can join him.”

The two of them would frolic on the lawn. At first their games seemed innocent, but Chester’s friendliness emboldened Puccini, who had a one-track mind. To accomplish his mission he would need a ladder, my father joked. Instead he had to make do with mounting Chester’s front paw. A bigger dog would not have gotten away with this.

My mother grew to resent these visits when Puccini’s manners slipped and he started scratching at the front door instead of waiting at the window. She threatened to write his owners a letter requesting that they keep him in. My father, who disliked conflict, asked her not to do this. At first she agreed, but when Puccini persisted she fired off a letter.

Being diplomats, they responded graciously, sending my parents two good bottles of Riesling and a conciliatory note saying how much Puccini loved Chester (they didn’t know the half of it). They also promised to keep him in for a while.

Because Chester was such a handsome, exuberant dog, he had many other admirers, both canine and human. My father felt proud of this and enjoyed fielding requests from neighbours wanting to walk him. Chester’s most enthusiastic fan was a lawyer named Michael Woods, who was between dogs. He liked to take Chester to the park. Afterward Chester would often follow him home and might end up playing soccer with Michael’s teen-aged sons.

Dad was delighted that his best friend had won over the Woods family. So it came as a shock when Michael’s wife, Charis, called one Easter Sunday to complain that Chester had made off with the ham she had cooked for dinner. She added angrily that he had also previously stolen two chickens from her kitchen counter.

Apparently the boys sometimes left the door leading into the house from the garage ajar, and Chester viewed this as an invitation to enter and sample whatever lay on the counter.

Although my father was usually unfailingly polite, the rules of diplomacy eluded him now that his companion was under attack. He responded tersely, saying, “Well, I suppose we’ll just have to replace those roasts.” After hanging up, he muttered, “What does she expect if they leave the door open?”

I joked that the time had come to emulate the Germans and shower Charis with flowers or wine and a note of apology. But he would have none of it, and continued to let Chester live like a king, revealing that dog love is also blind.
This personal essay first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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