Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Sheepdogs at Middle Age

                                            Mike and Duffy

Dear George,

 It’s hard to believe, but we recently celebrated Mike and Duffy’s seventh birthday.  It seems just the other day that I came home and was startled to find two eight-week-old black and white puppies sitting in our kitchen doorway.  I googled the life expectancy of Old English Sheepdogs today, and it turns out to be 12.8 (better than I’d thought).  So the dogs are now 49 in human years and they could live to be 90 or a hundred.

The dogs have mellowed as they’ve grown into adulthood.  Duffy remains the Alpha dog, but he is less obsessive about it, and Mike has become correspondingly more assertive (perhaps because he has gained some weight and now is about 5 lbs.heavier than Duffy).  In contrast to his youthful submissiveness, Mike barks like a madman when irritated at Duffy.  Instead of  reciprocating though, Duffy pays no apparent attention to this posturing and simply stands rigidly immobile while Mike yaps away inches from his brother’s head.  Duffy is still the faster eater of the two, gobbling up his bowl in two or three minutes.  When they were younger, I would have to intervene to keep Duffy from invading Mike’s food bowl, but now he simply wanders off to the other room and leaves his brother in peace.

The dogs spend much of the day looking out of the living and dining room windows, and they become agitated when the mailman comes or a neighborhood dog passes by with its owners.  Duffy is the most vigilant, and he barks at the top of his voice.  Mike joins in automatically, even though he often has no idea what the commotion is about.  The rest of the time the dogs either sleep or Duffy busily plays with his big rubber Kong (a truly fantastic dog invention).  He pushes it around for endless minutes, first with one paw and then the other, shoving it under the table or into the closet, and then retrieving it and carrying it about in his mouth.  His behavior might seem to  resemble an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but, in fact, he is capable of entertaining himself for hours on end.  Mike shows minimal interest in toys, but he is very interested in sitting and watching Duffy. 

Duffy has been terrified of skateboards since puppyhood, and he has never conquered this fear.  His anxiety is specific to skateboards – other wheeled vehicles like roller-blades, scooters, or bicycles elicit no reaction at all.  After years of avoiding the noisy Ludlow Ave. business district because of Duffy’s apprehension, I’ve recently taken to walking both dogs down that busy street.  Mike actually prefers the heightened stimulation and seeks out passing humans and other dogs for contact.  Duffy remains aloof.  While he’ll occasionally let himself be petted, he would rather hide behind me when kids and adults approach.  Because of Mike’s hip problems, I’ve taken to giving him shorter walks by himself, typically the four blocks up to the firehouse and back.  On the way home we sit for five minutes or so on the bench at the bus stop, and Mike enjoys watching the cars, buses, pedestrians, and bicyclists coming to and fro (and they him).

The boys’ little sister, Sophie, comes over for regular visits, and that’s always an exciting evemt.  Sophie has the most personality of the three dogs, and she can be counted on to stir things up.  She is wary of Duffy, who can be intimidating if not downright hostile, and Sophie spends her time flirting around and prompting Mike to play.  She paws at his face, and Mike responds with surly growling, then mock bites to her head and throat.  While Mike behaves like a grumpy old man, one senses that he secretly enjoys Sophie’s attentions, and they spend many minutes playing their paw and growl game.   

At nighttime Duffy jumps easily into our bed.  Mike is capable of doing so but prefers to be lifted in.  Both stake out their places before the humans are able to do so, and the dogs typically lie sideways in the middle of the bed, taking up 2/3 or more of the available space.  For unknown reasons, we politely accommodate this territorial behavior, bending ourselves into the small zig zag spaces which remain between the two canine torsos.  Duffy shows more affection with the humans.  While Mike is at his happiest when he can lick K’s toes, Duffy pins her down with his forepaws and gives licks her on the face.  The dogs usually retreat to the floor after we fall asleep, and Mike wakes me daily at about 6:10 a.m. by scratching at the bed’s sideboard to be lifted back in.

We and the dogs make up a happy pack.  They’re thrilled to greet us when we arrive home and miserable when we leave.  We pamper them shamelessly, and they shower us with unwavering adoraion.  They loved to be petted and they especially love to be fed.  Their affection enhances Katja’s and my relationship – all those good feelings get spread around.  Connections with dogs are simpler and easier than those with humans – more physical, more direct, less complex or ambivalent. Our lives are clearly richer and more rewarding, even healthier, because of Mike and Duffy.  All in all, we are a happy family these days.




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