Quillen’s Corner

Silly and stupid, but we love ‘em anyway

by Ed Quillen

The Rocky Mountain Dog is a magnificent creature who rides easily in the bed of an old pickup. His barking and growling, done only when necessary, protects his people from bill collectors, process servers, revenue agents, drug enforcers, Mormon missionaries, siding salesmen and other disturbers of domestic tranquility. He waits patiently outside the saloon while his owner relaxes inside. He is a faithful and fearless companion for wood-gathering, trout-fishing, mine-dump exploring, alley-scrounging and the other pleasures of life in the Rockies.

The Rocky Mountain Dog is of indeterminate breed, but has the energy of a border collie and the intelligence of a German shepherd. He can intimidate like a bull mastiff, swim like a Lab, and run like a greyhound. He is as affectionate as a beagle, as tenacious as a bulldog, and as powerful as a Doberman.

Alas, this wonderful creature is as real as Bigfoot or the Yeti. To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, we live here with the dogs we have, not the dogs we imagine.

As for what we have, consider what happens when a few guys are drinking beer and the conversation turns to dogs. They don’t brag on the intelligence or the obedience of their pooches; when the B.S. starts flowing like the Arkansas River in June, the tales concern the stupidity of their mutts.

Our old chow-husky mix (1989-2004) was named Ted, short for Teddy, named because our younger daughter thought she looked like a Teddy bear. Chows do have an ursine cast (when I was walking her, kids would sometimes come up and ask “Mister, can I pet your bear?”), but they’re more like 80-pound cats. They’re rather aloof creatures who live in their own worlds.

Chows have an awful reputation for general meanness, but Ted, in greeting people at our front gate, was more like “Let me show you to the easy chair. Then I’ll bring you the remote and fetch you a beer.”

The only time I recall her growling at anyone was at a tenant who was bringing a rent check. That dog was seriously stupid, because a few days later, she was wagging her tail and being friendly to a Colorado Department of Revenue agent who had come by with some annoying questions. A dog that intimidates at a check-bringer while slobbering over the tax man is a dog whose I.Q. doesn’t rise above the single digits.

Once I was loading charcoal briquettes into a grill. Ted apparently thought the charcoal bag was a dog-food bag, and sat nearby pleading for a piece. I tossed her one. She grabbed it and wandered off to chew on it. I figured she would learn that charcoal is not dog food. But no, she came back in a couple of minutes, begging for another.

This imbecility manifested itself again a week or so later. I’d just bought a new blade for my bow saw. I took off the wrapping in the house, then started across the back yard to the shed to install it. Ted saw the narrow, two-foot-long saw blade hanging from my hand, and must have imagined it was some marvelous over-sized dog treat, the Beggin’ Strip of her fondest canine dreams.

She ran up and tried to take a bite of the saw blade. Blood ran from the cuts on her black tongue and lips as she backed off. But before I could get to the shed, she tried two more bites. What the hell was she thinking? “Hmm, this stuff is kind of hard to chew, but it really is nice and salty.”

However, my tales of canine stupidity were always topped by Kirby Perschbacher’s. He has a heeler named Blue. You may have heard of the Mennonites in Custer County who look after the children of women who are in prison. Kirby’s in that position with Blue. His original owner got sent to jail, and Kirby generously took in the dog.

Blue, unlike any dog I’ve ever had, rides well in the back of a pickup. Except he did jump out of a moving truck once – when it was on a bridge.

No way am I ever going to top that. My current dog, Bodie, likes to chase things. So when we’re out walking and he sees a jogger, bicyclist or motorcyclist, he races over to sniff around and make friends, since he’s quite affectionate.

Often the encounter is pleasant, but sometimes it results in me being yelled at for not controlling the dog. I’ve thought up a response I haven’t tried yet, something to the effect that “As long as humans have lived around here, for the past seven or eight thousand years at least, they’ve been out with their dogs. There are ancient Western petroglyphs of Anasazi with dogs. The Utes kept dogs, and unlike some other tribes, they had a taboo against eating them, so they were pets, just like mine. So who’s the unnatural interloper who doesn’t belong out here: You in your Lycra? You with your machinery? Or me strolling with a loose dog, just as a Ute might have done two hundred years ago?”

Despite history, loose dogs are a problem. When I used to read the Leadville paper regularly, there were scores of complaints about strays on the Mineral Belt Trail.

That’s not a new problem for mountain hikers. My old copy of A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners observes that one Quandary Peak route offers “the unpleasant task of fighting one’s way through a pack of angry dogs residing at what must be the last hippie commune in the state.”

That’s over in Summit County, where in the spring of 1977, a three-year-old girl was killed by a pack of loose dogs. The county clamped down with serious regulations and enforcement.

Dogs ran rather freely in Salida when I moved here in the spring of 1978. But shortly thereafter, roaming dogs got into a kid’s rabbit hutch with predictable results, and the city started cracking down.

To move to another mammal for a moment, when I was looking through old local newspapers from 1964 and 1967 while working on a railroad story, on occasion a mule deer was spotted in town – and it happened so rarely that it was front-page news.

These days, if the Mountain Mail reported every deer sighting in the city limits, it wouldn’t have room for anything else.

So what’s changed? A wildlife conservation officer told me his theory: Loose dogs chase deer out of town. Put away the strays, and you get deer.

Roaming deer are no improvement on roaming dogs. Dogs may crap on your lawn, but they don’t eat your garden. Deer kill people occasionally with their horns and hooves. By causing auto accidents, deer kill hundreds of Americans every year. And where there are deer, there are mountain lions. Given a choice between encountering a pooch or a puma, I’ll take the hound.

So we have a choice between dogs and deer, and it’s not as though one option is clearly superior to the other.

Or perhaps it’s even more complicated than that. One next-door neighbor is dogless, and nearly every spring, the deer get their garden crocuses before they bloom. The neighbors on the other side were away for a spell this fall, and there were deer lounging in their yard.

With a dog in our yard, I thought we were protected. But one November morning, I let Bodie out into our back yard. About 10 minutes later, I looked out the window. A muley doe had jumped the fence and stood arrogantly in the middle of our yard, and there was no sign of Bodie. I found him huddled against the fence between the front and back yards, burrowed into a pile of fallen lilac leaves. Apparently he’d investigated the deer and got stomped a little. So he sensibly hid.

Thus I don’t know whether the “dogs prevent deer” theory actually works. Bodie was no deer repellent, but other dogs are likely braver. I do know that I’d rather have my dog than nature’s deer in my yard. Whatever other flaws dogs may have, they’re certainly better companions than deer. Indeed, better than many people, for that matter.

Ed Quillen helped found Colorado Central in 1994, back when he was hated by Lynda La Rocca’s old dog Twink. He is completing a web archive of his work at www.edquillen.com.