Saturday, March 3, 2012

Emma's Ruse

With the ranch quiet, aside from feeding chores and winter maintenance, I scheduled Emma’s cataract surgery for mid-January. Now, six weeks after her surgery, Dr. Chavkin, a veterinarian ophthalmologist, has prescribed a medicated eye drop twice a day and has given Emma permission to be off-leash. He said, however, “Emma shouldn’t get into it with other dogs or overdo any of her activity.” Standing across the examining table from Dr. Chavkin, I just smiled to myself. I knew the thought that Emma could be free but not seriously rambunctious was actually a paradox he could not entertain.

After a preliminary visit before her surgery, Dr. Chavkin came out of the examination room and said, “She is the coolest dog. She’s so well-mannered. She actually waited in a sit for the door to open.” I beamed momentarily. I am proud of Emma when she is well behaved. She comes to attention like a young, eager military recruit. But the idea that Emma leads all of her life in this way, while enticing, is misinformed.

It is easy to see how her social strengths in interacting with humans might divert the unsuspecting. Those who experience her in a positive light and setting are inclined to believe that Emma’s personality is consistent and reliable: If Emma is sweet, polite, and cooperative when I see her (in the office), she must be sweet, polite, and cooperative outside the office. But as tempting as it is to conclude that behavior comes in simple and predictable patterns, Emma has never been a simple matter.

She has the energy and drive of a high level rugby player; she has the endurance of a Kenyan runner; she has the loyalty of a large watch dog; and she has the competitive instincts of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Club) fighter. Yet, she wants nothing more than to be with me. If she could speak, she would ask to “play” with me all day whether I threw balls to her or led her as she obediently performed our repertoire of tricks or sent her through an agility course. When I raise the garage door she is at the ready to load up in the car and yet, when I leave her, she quietly walks to her bed and accepts my decision. Upon my return, she enacts what feels like a scene from the resurrection, her face beyond delighted, her body wriggling with unbridled joy.

I’ve concluded that Emma, like any child, has strengths and weaknesses. Her social skills with people are quite good and successful. She is well liked. Her social skills with other dogs are poor, perhaps bordering on anti-social. Her need for territorial dominance is fierce and unforgiving. Once outside the house, Emma immediately looks for fast action with the other dogs: a furious chase or a game of retrieval and consequential tug of war. On a summer afternoon she may sneak out to the roping chute and make a mad sprint after one of the roping steers before she’s in trouble with Pete and sequestered outside the arena. In the winter, as we head out for a walk, she strikes tauntingly at the other ranch dogs, Griz and Brody, challenging them to race in which she’s already communicated she’ll win. And if it’s warm enough when she helps Pete with feeding chores at the barn on a February day, she hunts down anything remotely qualifying as an item for retrieving. This item can be as inconsequential as a piece of trimmed hoof, a twig, or a piece of an old rope; or a more formidable object like a branch or remnant of a two by four.

This was the case when our daughter’s best friend dropped by for a visit a couple of weeks ago. A photographer, she spent some of her time at the ranch walking the grounds catching images of the horses, Hercules the goat, and by chance, a few pictures of the dogs. While walking through the barnyard, Pete said, “Kathryn, quick, you’ve got to get a picture of Emma. Look!” To her surprise, she turned in time to see Emma crossing the snow-packed barnyard with an eight-foot top rail in her mouth. Did she really think Pete and Kathryn would actually toss an eight-foot pole across the barn yard for her to retrieve? I believe she did. Aside from wondering how in the world Emma managed to balance a top rail in her mouth, I couldn’t help but wonder what Dr. Chavkin would think of the practical reality of Emma’s recovery protocol now.

I’m not surprised Emma has Dr. Chavkin, and every other veterinarian she’s ever seen, fooled. She is the perfect patient and the most polite canine that ever padded into their offices. She cooperates with every test or procedure a vet has ever conducted; she sits to wait for a treat for good behavior; and then she sits to wait for the door to be opened. So when giving me instructions to keep Emma quiet and just this side of truly free, I know Dr. Chavkin cannot imagine the Emma who lords over “her” ranch when newcomers arrive; takes up more than her share of space in the world of canine relationships; and makes every game a contest worthy of World Champion designation.

So, in a few weeks when we visit Dr. Chavkin for another follow-up eye exam, I plan to take a copy of the accompanying photo as a confessional gift: evidence of Emma’s ruse.

*I'd like to thank Kathryn Britton for capturing this great moment - Emma being Emma.

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