I tried to imagine what the house might look like to a new puppy. It was safe enough for grown dogs as evident by six English setters lying on beds and pillows and one Labrador at peace in her corner spot on the sofa.
There’s a saying that a clean house is a sign of a wasted life. Or, if not a bit of convenient wisdom, it is a statement on one of many fridge magnets that hold down my 10-year-old copy of the waterfowl shootingtime table.
The new puppy wouldn’t care too much about old newspapers and magazines strewn and piled on every surface above knee-height. He might notice a waft of mildew near the door where my wet jacket and boots hang still damp between trips out in the rain.
I wondered if he would identify the urine smell from that spot near the door where Hugo still sometimes marks his territory. It was difficult to potty train the five setter puppies Steve and I kept from a litter six years ago. We did our best and just barely succeeded in Hugo’s case. In total, they never quite grew up — we never made them grow up, and now we live in their Neverland.
The attendant burden of all the things we must do to keep our wreck of a house operational — from shoveling wood into the stove before the daily walk to calling the vet to make the latest appointment — might make us think it would be crazy to bring home another pup.
But, if you’re already crazy for dogs, you might as well stay crazy.
Most of the time, we share scenes from a hunting life outdoors. Indoors, you might see a pair of setters curled together in a chair with fishing and hunting upholstery. You might scan a room filled with bookshelves, arranged with old African hunting books, the uniquely American folk art of waterfowl decoys, a curiosity of animal skulls, a history of ammunition, fur and tail feathers.
It’s easy to forget these objects of affection are next to a shelf decorated with a bottle of all-natural cleaner that allows a dog to lick the floor it just peed on safely, an empty paper towel roll, and anti-inflammatory chews.
Sometimes, I think this home is not a place fit to invite people over for dinner. Never mind the seven resident dogs I can’t bear to make stay outside (“It’s their house”). I might not want to defend the fact that I don’t mind them begging at supper or jumping up to put their paws around my waist (“I love Cogsy hugs”).
Even if I shout the good things worth sharing with strangers as if from a mountain — a safe distance — asking someone to reconcile what a real house full of dogs looks like with sporting images from the field would not meet the bare minimum of what passes for polite.
I don’t want to be the subject of a Dear Abby letter in which my dog-fur-plastered upholstery creates a health hazard for a relative. No one wants to eat what I brought to the potluck because they’ve seen my kitchen (“I’ll bring the chips”), and I might be responsible for the cost to replace a beloved cashmere sweater forever ruined by dogs who love to snuggle and drool.
Some say there is a cognitive disconnect between the hunter/killer and the lover of animals and all things wild and free. In that case, it is not to be outdone by a similar and more mundane disconnect between life as we live it day-to-day and the almighty dream that keeps us working and learning.
For me, it’s hunting with bird dogs, water dogs, gun dogs. I can’t get enough of their joy in the field and their gifts for getting game. I’ll take the criticism that I likely smell like dog musk for the good that outweighs it (“I like that Hugo’s ears smell like Thanksgiving afternoon”).
Most recent among the best of the good things is the possibility of rebirth, renewal and recovery in the form of a chocolate Labrador puppy named Rigby.
This week at home, as he finds his bark and we begin to learn his ways, I am torn by a strong desire to embrace all the adventure we will discover together and a fear of burdening this beautiful new spirit in the world with even a small portion of my worldly sorrow.
It doesn’t matter to him that some of us humans think everything in the world is falling apart.
He can’t begin to care about the election, the pandemic or even the small cumulative stresses that have some of us collapsing in front of a screen each night when we would rather live the life than watch or scroll through it.
It is not the puppy that will help you sail away, find peace within or heal your tormented soul, and deep down you know it, just as much as you also know there are still good things. But, you bring him home, and it shows your faith in the future.
I’ve been saying that I’m overwhelmed a lot lately, and I said the same thing after the first night with Rigby in the house. When a friend expressed sympathy, I realized my mistake. For the first time in weeks, I had meant not overwhelmed but overjoyed — a good shift.
Rigby is a little grizzly bear of a pup — fat with lots of extra skin and large paws. He came from a big family of dogs, like ours, and the adult dogs co-parented the litter of pups, making it easier for him to join our pack. He is feisty and confident. We laugh when he barks at the recliner and falls asleep in his empty food dish.
The setters and Cheyenne the Lab are skeptical and acting a bit like elephants with a mouse in the house as he charges after them.
I want to tell them, “He won’t run up your nose.” I still love you all just as much. We’re going to have this new friend to play with and learn about. He’s going to ruin some of our stuff and change our lives.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.