Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
November 5, 2011
You can imagine it, the last of the fires burning low, giving off just enough light to make visible the eyes of the surrounding wolves, hungry, patiently waiting and inching inward, ever so stealthily. Given the intricacies of the human mind, it’s easy to understand how one might be tempted to toss a leftover bone toward those inquisitive, intelligent eyes, if for no other reason than to witness the excitement with which it was received.
And so began the domestication of the “dog,” about 10-15,000 years ago. Most likely we tamed and cultivated canines from the packs of gray wolves roaming the earth back then, an excellent evolutionary theory and a seemingly brilliant human idea, given what dogs contribute to our lives.
Historically, it all seems to make sense, but as a kid growing up, it was sometimes scary and usually confusing. Our dogs on the Woody Creek ranch were for work, and there really wasn’t much interaction with them other than that. When “off the clock,” they lived on the porch or in their doghouses and usually minded their own business. Naturally, we always glommed onto one or two as our favorites, but they were the exceptions.
When I was preschool age, I’d wander a block east on Bleeker to play with my friend Doug Franklin. He and I got along fine, but it always seemed like when it was time to go home, Lou Wille’s Russian wolfhounds would be out enjoying the afternoon sun and it was a challenge to get by them on the way back to my grandmother’s house.
They were SOBs, a nightmare for a kid to deal with. They’d knock me down in the middle of the street, dirt in those days, and if I tried to stand my ground, they’d attack from different angles. My face and my hands always seemed to be healing up from the scrapes. Complaints came from other quarters, as well, and Lou, being the honorable man he was, eventually took care of the problem.
Fred Iselin’s big, drooling St. Bernard, Bingo, would make the rounds on a rather meticulous schedule, usually coming toward my grandmother’s house from the alley that ran behind the Elishas’ garage. He always seemed unimpressed with the antics of kids and generally ignored us, but I clearly remember waiting and watching out the kitchen window for his expected arrival. He seldom missed his rounds and sometimes my grandmother and her sister Julia would leverage his appearance into stories about European St. Bernards and their daring rescues in the Italian and Swiss Alps.
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Today it might be hard to visualize, but in the 1950s, early ’60s, there were bands of ungrateful curs roaming the streets, irresponsibly turned loose by their owners, and we all kept an eye out for them. They’d knock you down and sniff you over, looking for food and more than one kid lost his bag lunch to the brutes on his way to school. Generally speaking, they were incredibly unfriendly, snarling and growling if anyone tried to get them to move along. A cry of, “The dogs are coming,” was usually enough to get us all inside someone’s house or fenced yard. No one ever proved it, mostly for lack of motivation, but the cure for these errant packs was believed to be poison.
If you look at the last 10,000 years, it’s clear not much has changed. Dogs are still being used as pack animals along mountain trails, although their participation today is not central to our survival as it was to the Utes before they began raiding horses from the “yellow-eyed” European palefaces.
Dogs still turn around several times before they lie down, mark their territory with obsessive consistency and seem to be our “best friends,” although no one really knows what they think.
And we, the great masters of our universe, just as we were 10,000 years ago, still believe we are smarter than our dogs.