One of the things I like the most about dogs is what sneaks they are. There’s nothing more hilarious to them than sneaking around. If dogs were reality show producers, all their shows would be about sneaking. They beam when they get away with something, which is what makes that famous poker-playing dogs picture so ridiculous. Dogs have no poker face whatsoever.
When Roo succeeds in doing something sneaky, she puts her head down so I won’t see her grinning from ear to shining ear. Don’t kid yourself - little Roo Kahoo Beker is a world-class sneak. There’s nothing, other than the smell of gopher in the morning, that she loves more. It’s what she would lead her resumé off with if she were applying for a job producing a reality show.
I would like to be able to get the sneaking impulse out of her system every day by working it into play. But, other than the gentlest paw-grabbing, which makes her huff and laugh and take my hand softly in her mouth, Roo is just not much of a game-playing dog. I will never stop trying to get her interested, and if there’s any success, I’ll work sneaking into those games somehow. With Orville I had several games that included various degrees of sneakiness, so he could get his daily dose of it. I first heard of the theory from dog trainer Paul Loeb, who said that if you have a jumping dog, like a little Jack Russell, you better find ways to get the jumping out of his system so he’s not jumping up and down driving you crazy all the rest of the time. The dog has got to jump - not only be told not to jump.
Developing sneaking games was easy. First, I tossed a stick on the ground and raced young Orville to it. Of course he would win every time and trot around with the stick, bucking his head, feeling great about being the King of the World. I let him get used to a little of that before I made him stay while I positioned myself halfway to the stick. Eventually I found out how much distance I had to spot myself to win. He hated losing. He would run like a devil on fire to get to that stick. You should have seen the look of injustice on Orville’s face. His own father had cheated him out of victory. It wasn’t that he was disillusioned in his human’s honesty and integrity. It was pure envy. If only he could make me stay! That would show me!
Then I showed him what he could do, too, by creeping up slowly on the stick, while lying about how we both had to wait. At first he was confused by this ruthlessness, but only for a few minutes. In no time he learned that it was okay for him to cheat in this game, too. He began to crawl a few feet forward at a time when I would ostentatiously look away to check on the stick. When I looked back at him, he would stop with the most innocent expression you ever saw, except with his ears higher. Even his tail was frozen to one side.
Eventually I changed this into the game of Slow-Race, which combined lying, cheating and sneaking in a game perfectly suited for long hotel corridors everywhere from Kathmandu to Italy. Slow-racing involved tossing a stuffed animal as far down the hall as I could, then both of us pretending not to move toward it, while creeping up on it. The winner would be whoever ultimately cheated the most blatantly, to the point of pouncing on the bear. That would be Orville. Being human, I was better at the lying and the cheating, but he was quicker.
I’m not sure why Roo doesn’t like to play. For a while I thought she was getting interested, but she’s not. She doesn’t touch her stuffed toys any more. Maybe it’s all the moving around. Maybe she’s too interested in real hunting. Maybe she’s just that kind of dog now that she’s not a puppy any more.
But that doesn’t mean Roo doesn’t enjoy sneaking as much as the next dog. And her favorite sneak jobs always involve scavenging for something that she knows she is not supposed to pick up. Crumpled old junk food bags. Used napkins. Discarded socks. Decaying carcasses.
Of course when I say, “Drop, Roo! Drop!” she knows exactly what I’m talking about. What does she do? She buys some time by turning her head so I won’t see her trying to swallow the contraband or hide it more fully in her mouth. It’s like being a hall monitor in a juvie facility. I have to go over and pry it out of her.
On Thanksgiving night, we ended up at a Motel 6 in a border town. I was sick to begin with. I had tinnitus loud enough to drown out traffic, and I could barely see any more. By the time we arrived I felt like someone had smacked me on the side of the head with a floor plank and was now forcing me at gunpoint to carry one of the stoves that were piled fifteen feet high on the pickup trucks in the parking lot up the two flights of concrete stairs.
What I did see, though, through the fog, was trouble ahead. Somebody had dumped a couple of tortillas and some unidentifiable food out of their car. All of it had been squashed to gruel by tires and flattened under the shoes of any number of people stepping on them. Roo and I spotted the mess at about the same time. Her ears shot up. Through the top of her furry head I could see the wheels start to turn. She looked up to check if the old man knew what was going on.
When she saw that I did, she pretended that she had no interest in the tortillas whatsoever. None. In fact, she would demonstrate it to me, if I liked. She would walk right next to me for a change.
“Don’t touch that, Rooki. I mean it - don’t even think - “
Pounce. I had no chance to get to her. I was already weak and plodding, loaded up with stuff, maneuvering through a narrow canyon of pickups parked too close together. Even though Roo had the drop on me, she didn’t waste time chewing, just in case. She snarfed everything down so fast that all I saw was her utter delight in getting away with it. How she wagged. How she smiled.
“Good for you, Bearface,” I said in the mocking singsong of the schoolyard. “You got away with it.”
Our room could be considered an upgrade from two of the dozen or so jail cells I have been in around the world, but only insofar as you could open the door and go. I take that back. The first time I was ever arrested in India - failure to give two airline sample bottles of booze to a customs officer in Madras - the cops were too drunk to remember to lock the cell. Anyway, I fed Roo, redundantly perhaps. It took a while to undo the laces of my boots. I was too weak to get out of my clothes. I lay down on the bed cover, which had never once in ten years been cleaned. I lay there.
A few hours later, I heard someone go, “Mmpf. Arph.” It was Roo groaning. Those tortillas and whatever else she ate off the ground were starting to haunt her. She tried to sleep it off, but after a couple of minutes she got up and gave me a dead serious look. Wide-eyed. Urgent. For a second, I looked back at her, hoping that in my eyes she would read the question, “How are you enjoying those tortillas now, Miss Smarty-Pants?”
So began a series of hurried trips outside. It turns out that, tortillas, chili, motor oil, tire rubber and old chewing gum can be highly refined into a liquified form in a matter of a few hours.
We got out of there around seven and headed east. By then Roo’s stomach had settled, and she lay there luxuriously, her head in my lap, while I drove with the sun in my eyes. On the radio someone said something about a comet that will be heading close to the sun. It would be there any day now. They weren’t sure if it would make it. If it skated past, we might be able to see it. If not, well, to me, it didn’t sound like such a bad way to go for a four-billion-year-old ball of iron and ice. Hurtling through space at 200,000 miles per hour and then being fried to a crisp?
Roo jammed her paw into my thigh - her way of saying, “You may walk me now.”
That’s when the day’s gunplay started, out on Roo's favorite river in the world.