I'll always remember a small, sad looking Beagle looking longingly at my bags as I cleared customs on a trip back from Paris. This dog was a true professional. He spent day-after-day at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport using his keen nose to search for marijuana, cocaine and other illicit drugs hidden in the luggage of returning travelers. There were no drugs in my luggage, but this Beagle definitely knew that one bag was filled with several pounds of fresh French cheese. As I watched the dog look lustfully at my bag, I knew immediately that he knew there was cheese inside. He never gave a sign to his handler that anything was amiss however. He just lingered slightly longer than usual at my bag and then dutifully moved on. The dog was very well trained and cheese was evidently not on his approved list of naughty substances.
We had a moment of communication though. With one soulful look in this dog's eyes, I knew instantly that this particular Beagle would much rather have been employed as a cheese sniffing dog than spending day after boring day looking for marijuana.
The whole incident left me wondering what dogs really want. Responsible owners spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the benefits of proper training. Training is always for the 'dogs' benefit. A dog that heals smartly at your side and snaps to attention on command is supposedly a happier, calmer animal. Maybe so. I'm not so sure however. Thirteen years of living with a Dalmatian have taught me that many times it is in everybody's best interest to let the dog win a few of life's little battles.
Dalmatians would make great cheese sniffing dogs. They'd also make great seeing eye dogs if blind people liked the idea of being slammed into passing trees or being led down the sidewalk in a drunken zig-zag pattern instead of a straight line. I think that deep down, all dogs have a mind of their own. The only difference with Dalmatians is that they don't let you kid yourself by trying to rationalize that what 'you' want is also what your dog wants. Contrary to many popularly held opinions, Dalmatians are exceedingly smart and very trainable. They just aren't shy about letting you know that they have their own opinions about things.
There are some people who would say that my dog Spot isn't very well trained. Others would say he is spoiled rotten. We understand each other though. Only a fool would say that they have their wife or husband well-trained. Most of us realize that life is more complex than that. Why is it so important that the relationship between man and dog mimic the relationship between a Marine Drill Sargent and a new recruit? I'm convinced that we humans often make such an effort to rigidly control our animals because we have so little control over anything else.
My dog will only really obey one command unerringly. He will always stop immediately on the command 'stay.' I have worked real hard on this command and I'll be the first to admit that Spot's ability to stop quickly on command has probably saved his life. A dog's ears work differently than yours or mine. Dogs can hear the sharp high pitched bark of another dog from miles away, but their ears aren't nearly as sensitive to the low rumbling noise made by an approaching car. If you don't want your Dalmatian to get run over by passing cars or knock down little old ladies with their exuberant greeting rituals, it's important that you know how to convince your dog to stop whatever he's doing whenever you say so.
Why even bother to train a Dalmatian to heal though? They were bred to run with run with horses and almost all that I have had the pleasure of knowing absolutely love to run. A Dalmatian will always want to be briskly leading the way at the end of its leash. Life will be a lot simpler and your dog will be happier if you buy a long leash and learn to walk faster. A Dalmatian will always prefer to sleep in bed with you when faced with other alternative like sleeping outside, or on an old blanket in the utility room. I realize that many people draw the line at dogs sleeping in bed, but is it really all that bad? You eventually learn how to occupy a tiny postage stamp section of the bed as your dog learns how to fill up the rest of the available space by lying flat on his side with his feet stretched out ready to pummel you during the next dog dream.
I have no complaints about dog dreams though, even if Spot's elaborate nighttime adventures often threaten to push me off the edge of the bed. People tend to think that dogs only dream of chasing or being chased. I'm sure that Spot has chased his share of cats and rabbits during the wee hours, but I think there's more to it than that. I can tell from the subtle changing rhythms of dog paws on my back during the night that Spot is sometimes climbing hills. He runs, jumps and at times tentatively pauses, as if contemplating an unknown object in his path. Often there is muffled and oddly quiet barking that accompanies these adventures in dreamland.
What do dogs dream about anyway? I often dream that I can fly. I doubt that Spot ever dreams of becoming airborne, however. Do drug sniffing Beagles dream of finding Camembert instead of cocaine in people's luggage? Do headstrong Dalmatians dream of a world beyond the backyard fence? I would like to think my dog dreams of becoming a French chef. Why not? Like the best culinary artists, Spot definitely lives for food. He seems to enjoy his dinner in direct proportion to the number of pots, pans and different ingredients required to prepare it. Maybe the muted barks, rolling eyelids and slowly thumping tail of Spot's dream world aren't the result of imaginary confrontations with neighborhood cats at all. Spot loves to open wrapped up presents with his teeth, so maybe he dreams of Christmas. Then again, maybe he is just anticipating the perfect meal, carefully mixing together his favorite ingredients: decaying dead fish, fresh horse poop, baby carrots and pizza.
When I was in college I used to spend my Summers working in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains not far from Crested Butte. The friends I was staying with had two Irish Setters that they let out of the house at daybreak every morning. These energetic dogs would run full speed up a small wooded butte behind the house and we would listen to their excited barks disappear in the distance as we finished our morning coffee. About 2PM every afternoon, the dogs would return just like clockwork and spend the rest of the day sleeping peacefully in the backyard. This is probably the life all dogs dream about.
Unfortunately, this bucolic vision of canine freedom is virtually impossible to wake up to in the busy urban centers where many of us live. If you let your dogs run free in a city, they will either get run over by a passing car, get stolen by opportunistic thieves, or precipitate a neighborhood feud by pooping on some fastidious neighbor's perfectly manicured lawn. Dogs, just like people who live in cities, typically have to settle for smaller dreams than their own backyard mountain. Small dreams are OK though. That's why I always let Spot take the lead in deciding where we are going to go on our daily walks even if we end up walking in aimless circles through the park. It may take us a little longer, but he seems to enjoy exploring a new and different path every few days. I let Spot sleep on the bed with me even though it often seems like I am sleeping on an army cot. Again, it is something he truly seems to enjoy. Dogs are pack animals and maybe curling up next to me at night is as close as he's ever going to get to having a pack of his own.
I truly don't understand the neighbors on my street who leave their dogs alone all day, tethered to a tree by a chain or locked up in a back yard dog run. I'm sure these lonely yard pets have dreams too. They all look envious as Spot and I walk by each day on our walks. They bark at us through tall chain link fences like they're in prison and it's our job to break them out. In truth, Spot is more or less in prison too, but at least he's got a good cellmate.
There are people who don't think it is a necessarily
a good thing that a Dalmatian has become my best friend. "You need to
get out more," they tell me. Spot and I understand each other though.
The older we both get, the harder it is to tell us apart. Each of us
has dreams that will probably never will be realized. Each of us has
a complicated set of daily routines we both find familiar and comforting.
My friend Janet says that Spot and I have even developed the same disgusting
eating habits. It is a small little universe we occupy. There are no
snowy mountains in our back yard. There are no Paris penthouses. There
are no regrets either. It's a good life. Each evening we take a little
walk, fix a little dinner, watch a little television and settle down
for another night in dreamland.
If you enjoy these stories and would like to help this wonderful breed of dogs, please consider making a donation to Dalmatian Rescue of North Texas. Your donation will help Dalmatian Rescue continue to rescue and rehabilitate the hundreds of Dalmatians that are abandoned in North Texas every year. To help give a deserving Dalmatian a second chance, just click on the button to your left. You can use any major credit card to make your donation instantly and no matter what you choose to give, you can feel a little better knowing that you have helped a dog very much like Spot find the one thing it really needs: a home.
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