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Ralph Gardner: Hail Wallie!

Wallie enjoying her cupcake party
Ralph Gardner Jr.

My wife asked me a thought-provoking question as our dog’s seventh birthday approached. Do I feel Wallie and I have grown closer during the pandemic? Getting a new dog back in 2014 wasn’t my idea. Several years had passed since our previous pet, Mimi, perished and I’d grown greatly accustomed to not walking a dog at night.

As much as I like dogs, I preferred not rousing myself from the TV or whatever other essential pastime I happened to be performing to let her leisurely sniff her way around the block, sometimes doing her business, sometimes forgetting to in the ecstasy of analyzing a scent. Say what you will about New York City, one never lacks for olfactory experiences.

Having a dog upstate is infinitely easier. All you have to do is open the door a few times a day and let the organism out. Hopefully she’ll return, but not for a while. If Wallie and I have bonded, and we have to answer my wife’s question, squirrels deserve much of the credit. Each morning when I awake it’s to a Bacchanalian feeding frenzy at our bird feeders. I’ve noticed the rodents particularly appreciate platform feeders where they can assume residence, gorging themselves and dissuading the birds from joining them. Dispatching the pests, preferably to a better place from which they’ll never return, requires a larger, faster, more ferocious mammal.

In fact, part of Wallie’s charm is that she’s exceptionally gentle. She’s never snapped, let alone bitten anyone. This has to do with her breed. She’s a Bracco Italiano, a hunting dog. She’s been bred to locate prey and then carefully retrieve it once her master has done the dirty work. She makes a rare exception in the case of squirrels. When I reward her with a biscuit, after she’s sent them flying, she doesn’t grab it greedily the way a normal dog would; she gingerly finesses it into her mouth. You could be forgiven for believing she has manners.

The breed’s most endearing quality is that it’s desperate to serve. They won’t let an opportunity go by. Hence, Wallie invariably greets you at the front door with a gift in her mouth – a toy or stick. Her favorite parlor game, indoors or out, is to present you with a fallen tree branch and snatch it away at the last moment.

Her energy, even though it’s ebbing slightly in middle age, is monstrous. It’s sometimes hard to persuade her to rise from her couch in the a.m. to hunt squirrels if it’s cold or rainy. But once she does her speed is ridiculous. If she launches herself out the front door and around the side of the house in one direction you think your mind is playing tricks on you because she’s returning from the opposite direction almost before you’ve registered her departure.

Her athleticism and eagerness to please is most apparent as she leads you through walks in the woods. She travels ten times your distance as she departs to pursue various scents and returns frequently to check in. I used to think she was stupid but she’s not. She has a vocabulary, albeit a limited one. She definitely understands the word walk because as soon she hears it she’s moaning to go for one.

She also cocks her head at an angle and lifts her ears when she thinks you’re engaging her in conversation – not issuing commands or reprimanding her but when you’re eliciting her advice or opinions. She’s also intimately familiar with my patterns. When I pick up a newspaper from the recycling bin to light the grill – even before I retrieve the charcoal or matches – she’s up from her nap, no matter how profound, and agitating to join me.

I don’t mean to suggest Wallie’s perfect. She emits a musk that’s equal parts hunting dog and whatever decaying organic matter she’s managed to find and roll around in during our wanderings. Also, she doesn’t swim. I’ve never heard of a dog that doesn’t swim. Especially a hound with large webbed feet. You’d think she’d be a natural, but it’s possible we traumatized her when we took her into Long Island Sound as a puppy and assumed she floated. She prefers to stalk the perimeter of our pond, ambushing frogs and then tossing them into the air. While I doubt they appreciate the game I don’t think I’ve ever seen her hurt one.

Pandemics crimp birthday parties and that includes those for dogs. However, we’re taking advantage of the warming weather and throwing Wallie an afternoon cupcake party. That reminds me of another of her assets. She doesn’t steal food off unpatrolled dinner plates or from kitchen counters, at least not often. But we’re guilty of encouraging at least one nasty habit. We let her lick the plates when dinner is through, an unforgiveable sin that hasn’t harmed her health, pearly white teeth or the sheen of her coat – whatever you’re doing, the vet tells us, keep doing it. Unfortunately, it does encourage her to start mewling for dinner to end well before it has.

Pandemics are best avoided but one of their benefits is that they can make you more appreciative of those in your pod. That goes for dogs as well as for people. Especially dogs.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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