Saturday, June 21, 2014

Great Dogs That Made Family Legends

No family website would be complete without some discussion of our pets. Over the decades we have been blessed to share residence with some outstanding animals. I won’t bore you with the equally cherished but average dogs and cats we have all had, but tell you about a handful of truly extraordinary personalities which happened to have been dogs. And that line-up would have to begin with the legendary Hound Dog…
Cousin Yvonne Rollins (Finley) sitting with Hound Dog. Hound Dog was born to babysit.

My father and his family lived in the suburbs of Houston during the Great Depression, and it was during this time that my grandfather acquired Hound Dog and brought him home. Half Airedale and half Bloodhound, he was large and a bit peculiar looking, a kind of scruffy hound without the huge ears. He grew to be powerful and wise, and quickly Hound Dog established himself as the wonder dog of our family, well known and admired throughout the neighborhood. For thirty years after, no get-together of our family was ever complete without a long recounting of his achievements.

The family spent many weekends down on the west end of Galveston Island, swimming and fishing and floundering and crabbing and eating a feast of the daily catch. Every day the kids would play on the beach, swimming and diving for sand dollars, and body surfing. Hound dog was left in charge of babysitting. He would watch the children as if he was a sheep dog and they were a herd of sheep. No sheep was allowed out in the Gulf too far. No sheep was allowed to wander down the beach. He would bark and tell on them if anything looked suspicious. The kids learned that he meant business too, and began to bait him, crying for help. That was all of the reason Hound Dog needed to take more authority over them. He would swim out to them, clamp down on the crier’s arm and began to tug them ashore. But the kids would take turns, and as soon as he would grab one child, another would begin to cry. “Hound Dog! Save me!”

Frustrated, he would drag one child in to a safe depth, which probably meant his feet could touch the bottom, and then swim out immediately to find the other in distress. This sick game of play emergency would go on for hours, till finally he would not let the children out in the water anymore...

On one such trip to Galveston, Hound Dog was not taken along.  When the family arrived back in Park Place late that night, they met a seemingly half-crazed dog when they opened the garage. Hound Dog would not let the Cushmans into the Garage. He barked and growled so convincingly my grandfather was convinced he had gone mad. Afraid and a bit perturbed, there was only one thing to do, and that was to get his gun and kill the dog. I believe that one of the children ignored his instructions to stay back and rushed towards the house entrance door inside the darkness of the garage. Hound Dog lunged in front of them. A Diamondback Rattlesnake, coiled at the door threshold bit him on the nose as he rushed forward to protect his sheep. Suddenly everyone understood. From that time on, they all knew- this wonderful dog was smarter than them, and would usually deserve the benefit of the doubt.

So impressive and notorious was this dog that a local moonshiner stole him once to use him to guard his whiskey still. The dog was loyal and ferocious, and feared no man. Stealing him must have been quite a trick, but his conscription did not last long.  After a few weeks Hound Dog showed up dragging a heavy chain behind him.

Hound Dog recovered from the kidnapping and the snakebite, although that nearly killed him. He would go on to do so many things like this that it would take a book to tell all the stories. But perhaps my favorite story is about when he was given away. The Cushmans had to move across town and there was no way to keep the dog. He was traded to a fellow who needed a Bloodhound. The family cried and said good bye, and tried to console themselves.

Weeks passed by and they heard that the dog had disappeared. He had not stayed at his new owner’s place long. But Hound Dog could not have known where he was, what direction he had come from, or where his former masters were. Texas was and is a big place. That was the end of that. Or it would have been for most dogs. Hound Dog must have returned to Park Place on foot, a distance of around fifty miles from where he had been taken. Then he began to search for his family, after he gave up on their return there. And yes, after months on the streets of Houston, Hound Dog found their scent somehow and found them at their new home in the Houston Heights…  a distance of around twenty miles. Can you imagine the surprise and the joy for all parties concerned when he arrived one day, after months of separation, and everyone had given up on ever seeing him again. Needless to say, they never tried to give him away again.

 Grandmother Cushman had two Cocker Spaniels. Here Tipper is perched on his favorite spot... under the watchful eyes of his master. The other dog was a black Cocker Spaniel named Fella Boy, who negotiated the neighborhood  for years totally blind.

Hound Dog made this family very hard to impress, when it comes to pets.  In fact, I should have saved his story for last, because no other animal could touch him. Since Hound Dog, there have been Cocker Spaniels, Lhasa Apsos,  Dachshunds, and many hybrids. But the next really great dog in my estimation was a Weimaraner named Pinkerton.

Pinkerton was my dog and he was born to a Weimaraner female we had been given. She was absolutely certifiable, but still we took a chance and bred her to a monster male who belonged to some friends. I’ll never forget when Pinkerton’s  daddy was brought to our house to do his business and he was kept in a horse trailer overnight.  He bellowed so loud, and his trumpeting was amplified by the steel chamber he was in, and he sounded like the king of all dogs as he cried out in the night. That was a long night. The business he came for took about ten minutes the next morning. Soon we had a cute batch of puppies and we had the sire’s owner come over and cut their tails off, which is standard procedure for Weimaraners. All of the pups fared well except one little guy that bled and bled.
We didn't take many pictures in those days so this little guy was borrowed from the Internet for illustration purposes.

My mother sat up with him for a long time just holding his cold, trembling body. We were afraid he would die. All the others had dark, rosy little noses and toes, and yet this little guy had lost so much blood, that his toes were pale pink. So it was “Pinky” from then on. I tried dignify him with "Pinkerton."

Pink was a huge, handsome Weimaraner, and a fetching fool. We moved to the real country in Grimes County right after that and he grew up chasing rabbits and knowing no boundaries. He was never restrained, and the five acres we lived on was his domain. He was fiercely protective, and my mother always felt safer with him nearby, or even in the house if my father was gone. But what made Pinkerton great was his devotion to fetching. Like our fathers before us, we were never satisfied with an animal that just did what he was supposed to do. Pinkerton was hilarious. He never shirked a task. After we learned that he was determined to fetch anything, then we began to test his strength and endurance.
This is not Pinkerton... but a very close facsimile. The breed is fairly consistent... or used to be, but those with pink nose and toes are less common.

Tennis balls got boring so we would toss bricks, boards, sticks, and the things got bigger and heavier. Pink always brought them back. One day I threw a stick a little too far and it went over the cliff looming over our creek, which meandered right in front of our house. It was a fifteen foot drop. Pink went right over. We blew up in laughter. It took awhile, but he climbed out of there with the stick. OK. That was cool. But what about a two foot piece of 2 x 4 ? OK-  What about a heavy oak slab from the firewood pile? Yea, but I bet he won’t bring back a brick! Over the cliff he went, every time.  He was the Mountie of dogs, he always got his “ball,” whatever it was made of.

So we looked down at the water, fifteen feet below… we wondered if he would fetch a brick from the water…  then we wondered if he would fetch a ten pound piece of limestone from the bottom of a three foot deep pool… Bless his heart, that dog would go after it, find it, dive and dive until he dragged it ashore, and then dragged that damned rock up that nearly vertical cliff to us. He could not pick it up, but would get a bite on a corner and move it a few feet, then get another hold on it. Sometimes he would get it halfway up and it would roll down by itself and plop back in the water. He would chase after it as if it was a t-bone steak. Pink was the epitome of perseverance. Never satisfied, we learned to frustrate him by throwing big heavy black clay clods into the pool.  Over the cliff he would go. They would dissolve and would fall apart as they hit the water, and sometimes he would find enough to bring a portion back…  And sometimes we would have to call him back to keep him from drowning himself.

Pink was a good old dog. It broke my dad’s heart when he was shot in the leg, probably by an angry chicken raiser, and he did something he said he would never do. This was the owner of Hound Dog you understand. “The greatest dog that ever lived.”  Well Pink must have been Number 2, because he took that dog all the way to the Texas A&M Vet school (40 miles) where they could reconstruct and put a splint on his leg and save it. It cost him a fortune, but “dogs like that do not come around every day.” Pink never saved anybody’s life, or even fetched a single pheasant. It’s too bad he was wasted on… bricks and rocks. But he was certainly the pick of the litter, and if heart has anything to do with greatness, he was one of the great dogs in our family.

A few years later after I got married and we were living in Denton I decided I wanted a regular dog... a regular, normal breed… a Labrador Retriever. One was advertised “FREE TO GOOD HOME” and we went to look at him. I followed the directions into a dark wooded part of town one night to come upon a giant black dog on the front porch. He must have been 150 pounds. Thank goodness the owner told me I had the wrong house… that it was next door. After that Ivan looked small to my wife, who gladly took him once she had seen the monster next door.

Ivan was almost full grown, almost eighty pounds,  and already trained and very domesticated.  It was a shame for somebody to give this dog up, as he was truly as champion. A full blooded black lab, he was very smart, wanted to please, very protective, and yet very playful. Once again, he was in many instances smarter than the people who “owned” him. I was so in love with that dog from the beginning it is a wonder we did not spoil him rotten.  But then we soon learned that he could and would escape from our yard no matter what we did. He could chew or break almost any restraint, and climb any fence. If he decided to leave, he was gone, until he decided to return, and we spent considerable time worrying about his whereabouts or how to prevent his escapes.

But then there was fetching. In many ways he reminded me of Pink. He was show dog material. And when I was gone, the dog made Linda feel very safe alone. We lived in Altair on the Gulf Coast prairie for a year and his presence provided great comfort, but he got his fill of mosquitoes there. One night he whimpered and barked until I finally went out to beat him... only to choke by inhaling a cloud of mosquitoes surrounding him. The  poor dog was being eaten alive. We had a wonderful country place with a fenced yard, but the weather, especially the mosquitoes drove him inside with us a great deal of the time. I worked as a duck and goose hunting guide but was never allowed to bring him along, as there were always “better” dogs available in the “Goose Hunting Capital of the World.” So it was not until we moved inland to Plantersville that the legend of Ivan began to form.

Linda and I moved into the old Greenwood Store in Plantersville, Texas in 1979. My parents had purchased the store and we went there to help them, and live the fantasy of retro Texas. Built in 1861, the old store was like a step back into the Depression era.  We lived upstairs in a makeshift apartment, and ran the day to day operations. Stocking, butchering, hauling feed. Ivan had no yard anymore, but transformed quickly into a classic store dog.

Ivan would lay around the store on the cool wooden floor and snooze and occasionally open one eye and thump his tail as folks sauntered by. If someone noticed him and spoke to him, he would sit up and take affection. Most of the time we hardly knew he was there. People would want to share their rat cheese and summer sausage with him, or take him outside to play, and he became quite popular. Then one day a few folks came in from a notorious unrestricted sub-division, famous for colorful characters-  and immediately Ivan sat up. Within seconds he blew into a full alarm barking tirade. He cornered one man in particular and we could not console him, and could only apologize profusely for his behavior. Later we found out this person was a pervert and suspected sex offender.

Ivan knew. He seemed to be able to tell by instinct the good guys from the bad guys. And nobody was a good guy in that store when we were not around. One night while we were gone, the store’s former owner tried to use his key to get in to get a few bags of range cubes for his hungry cows. He told us the next day that he had to let his cows go hungry. The dog just looked sheepish as he related his scare as he tried to enter, and faced the jaws of death. While the man explained the stand-off, Ivan wagged his tail with no hard feelings, because he knew the man, but NOBODY was coming in that store when we were gone.
The first requirement of a great dog is to be a good babysitter. Here our niece Tina shows the typical affection that children had for Ivan.

I think what makes a dog special is his complexity- when a dog shows depth of thought, discernment or cunning, or traits of character we associate with great humans. Ivan had all of these things.  As formidable as he was, to stop an old cowboy dead in his tracks, he was as gentle as a wet nurse.

Stealing the Easter Bunny...

After we had moved into a home on the edge of town, a few days before Easter Linda came home from work to discover Ivan carrying a small furry creature in his mouth. “Russell ! He’s KILLED somethiiing!”

I carefully removed a sopping wet but otherwise unharmed baby cottontail. Ivan was thrilled with his find. I scolded him and took the rabbit to the porch, to inspect the bunny for broken limbs or skin tears. There were none. As we discussed what we might do with the little guy, Ivan returned, with another one! He had a proud look on his face, like he was glad to share his finds… “You guys can have that one, and I can have this one!” We tied him up, before he could rob momma bunny of any more of her brood.

One of the bunnies Ivan stole on Good Friday.



Ferocious. Perceptive. Tender. A True party animal... And a dirty, sneaky thief. We were kind of poor in the beginning and one evening a friend showed us how to dig a barbecue hole in the back yard. Dig a hole, place a grill made of hog wire over it, let the coals cook down.. Voila! We made grilled steaks and barbecue chicken and forgot ourselves while munching on the great food.  Seeing opportunity right at eye level, Ivan calmly sauntered over, quietly drug a chicken leg off of the flaming grill, and we never knew until we heard piping hot bones popping. “Oh well, if he can eat that thing right off of the grill, he can have it!”

Ivan was a mess, and I loved him like a brother. I dreamed once that he could talk to me. It seemed perfectly natural at the time.  We took him everywhere and he was always more enthusiastically received than we were.  He was the hit of every party. There’s nothing like watching drunks playing with a sober, competent dog. They can entertain each other for hours. Ivan was great around babies and children, and never once even growled at one, even when he should have.  People would call and invite us to a gathering and always say, “and make sure and bring Ivan!” He was the one they wanted, we got to go along for the ride.

Eventually Ivan got to live in the same place where Pinkerton had amazed us with his impossible tasks. Ivan passed the Pinkerton test. Being a lab, he was less daunted by the water, more comfortable going under. The difference was I would not let him hurt his teeth on rocks and such. I had grown up a little. But he was hell on 2 x 4’s. And he always had a favorite toy.  Linda would actually make him those sock monkey dolls, which he would carry around the yard proudly as if a lion were carrying his kill. He would wear them out over months just carrying them from place to place.

I always loved to demonstrate Ivan's love of retrieving... here he wowed everyone with his swimming ability in the Gulf. He had never before seen a wave, but he was game to fetch as far as we could throw... "Sit..."  (throw, but dog waits and watches the target and drools...)"Waaaaait" ... "Fetch!"  and off he would go like a racehorse.

We had cats, turkeys, and other critters around, and he never showed aggression. But if he was to get in a fight, he would take all comers. When he was young he had gotten into a scrape with a huge Great Dane, and learned to get his licks in first. He would hit a dog with his powerful chest and knock them down and tear them up while they were still thinking about whether to fight or run. He never even paid attention to little dogs, as if they were funny to him. But he was not invincible. A Doberman from next door got loose and attacked him while he was tethered and asleep, and had him pinned down. I ran out of the house, picked up the attacker by his back skin, and rammed is head into the side of my house. He hit the ground yelping and never knew who or what had rung his bell. Later when I had time to calm down, I thought about what I had done. That dog could have killed me. But Ivan deserved whatever I had to give.

Linda grew up with a part lab who has the best story of all.

"Precious" was a constant companion of her brother, Allan Jr's. We all knew Allan Jr. as "Buddy." One day when Buddy was still pretty small, he and his friends were messing around down on Cypress Creek and dug a huge cave inside a sand embankment. The fairly deep cavern was a great play fortress until it collapsed. Suddenly Buddy was underneath tons of sand, and his little friends did not know where to start digging. They ran back home in a panic and alerted the grown ups, while Precious  stayed there and dug where his senses told him his young master would be. With his nose as a guide the rescuers were able to dig right to Buddy and were able to revive him in time. Buddy had almost suffocated, and the direction and time saved by his faithful pet probably saved his life. Precious was another rare dog, who earned his place as a legendary family dog.

And everybody has had an animal like that, who they loved like a member of the family, who they would take ridiculous risks for... spend whatever it took to save them… felt like they were their best friend. We have had several. I wonder if having had Hound Dog, whether we came to expect greatness from our animals. Or did we just get lucky…  as two of these dogs were hand offs. Whatever,  I get choked up when I think of these marvelous animals. My brother Ralph right now has a legendary German Shorthair up in Alaska that he should write about. Maybe in the future he will… write the legend of Vick. It will be the most incredible of all.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful tales about your dogs! I enjoy your writing.