Soon after the word got out that we kept a pet iguana, a hognose snake and a snapping turtle inside our house we became known as "that" animal family. My brother and I were often asked to babysit cats, hamsters, fish and other pets while neighbors went on vacation. On one quite memorable occasion, Mike and I were hired to take care of a mongrel owned by the Johnston family. "Smut" was a classic mutt. If you were to look up the word "dog" in the dictionary there might be a picture of him accompanying the text description. He was a large dog (60-70 lbs) with a brindled, shaggy coat and a generous snoot.
Smut spent his days attached to a chain, hooked to a small tree in his yard. At one point in his career, he had a sliding cable rig that allowed him to circumnavigate the yard more efficiently. Except for the chain, he had a pretty good setup, a nice dog house and plenty of shade. Smut was a known fixture of the neighborhood and most of the kids stopped to pet him as they passed by. When first approached he barked and looked pretty scary, but he was certainly an agreeable guy once you walked up to give him a pat on the head or flank. Compared to Beowulf, an aggressive Great Dane down the street, and a surly boxer named Kilroy, Smut was a solid citizen.
So how much trouble could it be to take Smut a bowl of food and fill his water tub once a day. At first, things went as expected; Smut was delighted to see me, fresh water and a delicious bowl of kibble. I felt kind of bad leaving him on the chain as I walked back to the house and went on about the day's activities. After I visited the next day and conducted his daily feeding and watering, I noticed that Smut had a really sad look on his face. Since I am a real sucker for sad dog faces, I felt a pang of guilt course through me. Smut followed me toward my house and was forced to stop abruptly as he reached the end of his tether. In a moment of weakness, I decided to let him off the chain for a quick romp around the yard. I would grant him a few minutes of fun and then reattach him to his chain. Smut was quite amenable to the idea and waited patiently as I unhooked the clasp on his collar. The very second I unfastened the hook, I heard a scrabble of paws, detected a blur of motion and the mutt blasted across the grass, leaped over the small hedge of Ligustrum and disappeared into the next yard. I had no idea that Smut was such an athlete as I had only seen him on the chain. I spent the next few minutes calling Smut's name over and over to no avail.
After telling my parents what had happened, a search party, made up of the entire family was assembled to find the ungrateful beast. After hours of searching nearby streets and interviewing neighbors, we gave up. We figured the novelty of racing around the neighborhood would likely wear off and Smut would return home soon.
Well, he didn't come back that night or even the next day... maybe the dogcatcher got him. Our neighborhood was packed with dogs (many roaming free) and none of us had ever seen a dogcatcher, so this was unlikely. A couple of days later we even resorted to driving the streets looking for Smut's lifeless body on the side of the road or in a ditch in case a car had hit him. We did not have a telephone number to reach the Johnstons and they were not due back for a couple of weeks so there was little we could do but hope for the best. We continued to fill his food and water bowl and it was clear that somebody was making visits to the food bowl.
Our family had a ritual every weekend called "Saturday Morning Cleanup". This practice involved all family members cleaning up the house and yard for the following week. This mandatory ritual lasted through my entire childhood, even over college breaks and summers. For the record, my brother and I were not big fans of Saturday morning. We often joked that it would take a letter from the governor to excuse us from these chores. So, believe me the following Saturday (loose dog or not) the whole family was out doing yard work. As we dug holes and toted wheel barrows full of grass clippings and soil, Smut appeared. He paused briefly on the edge of the yard and then dashed across the lawn into the woods behind us. We dropped our garden tools and raced across yards and toward the park, but Smut was too quick. At one point he stopped fifty feet from us, adopted a downward facing dog posture, eyes glued on us and kind of a smile on his face. We formed a line and slowly crept up trying to corner him against a fence but at the last minute he zipped between us and disappeared down the street. I got the impression that Smut had enjoyed this game of chase far more than my parents did.
So at least we knew Smut was alive and well. Over the next several days we saw Smut a few times and heard reports of a brindled dog galloping through yards or standing in the street. I remember sitting in our den looking out over the patio and seeing Smut dash across the back yard; I think he was taunting us. It wasn't until the middle of the second week that we finally "collared" Smut. I don't remember how we actually captured the mongrel; heck, he might have just walked back into his own yard and asked to be reattached to the chain.
The Johnsons returned a day or two later to Smut sitting contently in the backyard attached to his chain. I vividly remember Mrs. Johnson exclaiming how healthy and lean Smut looked as she paid me twenty five dollars.