Radish at age 13.
Radish at age 13. (James Minchin)

Living in Dog Years

Tearing through the banquet of life, Radish, the author's omnivorous, irrepressible red heeler, was a happy and undiscriminating guest—not to mention a philosophical beast who maybe, just maybe, had it all figured out

Radish at age 13.
James Minchin
Bill Vaughn

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Spying from my hammock as Radish dragged home the spine of a winter-killed whitetail he'd scavenged in the forest, I realized that I had developed a bad case of professional jealousy. The truth is, my 13-year-old red heeler was far better at what he did than I am at what I do. While I was missing the boat, buying high and selling low, choking on the anxieties that settle in with the night, yet feeling nothing in the morning except that cool remove, Radish joyously organized his days so that they passed before him like gleaming cans of Alpo on an endless conveyor belt. Because he was a monument to the simple life naturally lived, I decided to study him one summer day, to read him as if he were one of those get-ahead books, Ten Habits of the Super Successful, say, or Twelve Steps to the New You.

The next morning I wandered from the bedroom to find him sprawled on the living room couch with Clara, our little four-year-old Border collie. On the other couch were three of their pals from the neighborhood, an expensive corgi of the Cardigan variety named Mister Rogers, an Australian shepherd named Cricket, and a sweet-tempered pit bull named Big Head Todd. These high breeds sometimes spent the night whenever Radish allowed them through the dog door. They had about them the contemplative emotional weather of people who had just settled onto their beach blankets with a best-seller and a cold one. My wife, Kitty, ushered out the neighbors so the home dogs could eat their breakfasts. And then our day began.

Radish trotted down the hill behind the house to the slough for a drink and the first of his many swims. Next stop was the corrals, where Kitty was feeding the horses. Radish made a beeline for Mokie, a mare Kitty's family has owned for all of the horse's 35 years. His obsession with this geriatric wonder was based on the fact that because her teeth have been ground to stubs much of the meal she chews dribbles from her mouth and falls to the ground. After grazing on horse feed, Radish sampled next a nice fresh horse turd, a delicacy no dog can seem to resist, rendering the phrase “shit-eating dog” redundant. He was so fond of a little taste every day that in the winter he smuggled in frozen hunks of it, dropping them on the hearth to thaw.

When you make any effort to live the way a dog lives, especially a dog who dances with complete abandon from one impulse to another, the past evaporates and the future becomes nothing more than the next good thing.

When he was finished at the corrals I followed as he headed across our front field, under the wood-rail fence, and out into the pastures of the ranch next door. When we first moved to this floodplain in western Montana, Radish counted on the fact that the rancher fed his cattle every morning with milled oats. Because stealing oats came under the heading of what Radish did for a living, he made these feedlots a mandatory stop on his daily roam until the rancher went to an all-hay diet. But it wasn't the memory of porridge that drove Radish on, it was grooming. Or maybe “image enhancement” would better describe the streak of green cow shit that he smeared across his cape as he rolled on his back in the muck, his legs waving languidly in the sweet mountain air. He jumped to his feet with a satisfied grunt and turned to admire the glorious mess he'd made of himself.

I walked him back down to the slough and heaved a stick into the water. He went after it like a shot, throwing himself off the bank and hitting so hard his belly flop spooked a pair of pheasants, which exploded from the brush with a stream of cuss words and a flurry of wings. When Clara heard the ruckus she streaked from the house and flung herself into the water as well, in order to wrestle Radish for the stick. They swam around each other in circles, growling, a dog fixed to each end of the stick, until Radish let her have what she wanted. It was his nature to live and let live. He'd been in only two fights—a blue heeler named Bingo tore his right ear, and a neighbor's calico named Wilma jumped on his back and rode him like a bronco.

We got Radish from a cattle rancher named Jerry Hamel, whose spread is on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Six years earlier we'd bought a mare from Hamel, and we trusted his estimation of animals. But when we drove up to look at the pup he was so fat and his legs so short I decided this blob couldn't possibly be a heeler—that speedy and quick-witted working breed that everyone in the West who traffics in quarter horses simply must own to complete his self-conscious ensemble.

But Jerry assured me that this bag of butter was indeed a heeler; he was fat because he and his brother, Mouse, were the only pups in the litter. When we drove back to the rez a few weeks later, Radish and Shine, his momma, were playing in an irrigation ditch. Before he could waddle off I snatched him up. While I sat with him in the truck and Kitty chatted with Hamel I noticed that this new addition to our menagerie had no tail.

“Jerry!” I called, not knowing then that working dogs are often docked so there's nothing to get in the way of the work.
“Where's his tail?”

“Ho, you know Indians,” Hamel said. “We ate it.”

Three months old and full of life.
Three months old and full of life. (Courtesy of Bill Vaughn )

When Radish was clean he rolled in the grass, then began barking furiously at a pair of red-tailed hawks, which looked down from their gyres to see whether this nuisance might be something good to eat. His love-hate relationship with birds sprang from the dressing-down I gave him after he tried to eat a neighbor's chicken the day we moved from the city to the country. “Yer dawg done bit off Gary's butt hole,” Gary's owner observed, cradling his damaged rooster, which would soon recover.

Maybe this kind of projectile barking was compensation for his ebbing powers—his hindquarters, for example, had begun showing the emaciation that strikes the males of all mammals, plus he'd developed a heart murmur. Or maybe it was just a new tactic he was employing in his ceaseless harvest of the world. But friends, this dog could bark! When it happened unexpectedly indoors your stunned eardrums cringed from the force of it. In the autumn Radish sat under our Goodland apple tree and barked heavenward until fatigued, nerve-rattled fruit just gave up and dropped from the branch.
He went back to the slough for a beverage and then grazed on the tender tops of the broad grass that carpets the banks between the cattails. After joining Clara and Mister Rogers for a chase game in the backyard, he went to a special spot under a mountain laurel in our walled garden for a nap. An hour later, with temperatures pushing 90, he padded into my office and ordered me to take him swimming in the river.

The instant I grabbed an inner tube from the elm where they're stored, the dogs bolted down the path to the river. Clara flung herself from the bank with Radish close behind, and they began paddling furiously for the opposite shore. Although the channel here is only a hundred yards wide, the current swept us downstream twice that distance before we could beach ourselves on Radish Island. The dogs shook themselves and raced down the gravel to a sandy lagoon on the tip of the island where a languid whirlpool keeps the sticks I throw in play.

Although he was bred to work cattle, Radish had never been fully trained to do anything. He came and went as he pleased, slept on the furniture, drank from the toilets, climbed on the tables to look for butter, and yapped like a hyena when I licked my plate, because that also came under the heading of what he did for a living. Some people were horrified that I was raising a hippie, but I admired the liberties he took. They were the canine equivalents of what I would do if I had more courage—the complete 365-day year I would devote to nothing except learning Welsh, building a still, making preparations to have a taxidermist freeze-dry my carcass on Getaway Day, and riding my horse from Caracas to Buenos Aires.

Uneducated as he was, however, Radish had always been a quick study. He immediately learned how to heel, how to use his dog door, and how to cajole what he wanted from horses without getting kicked. Because a parcel-delivery driver gave him a biscuit ten years ago, he began leaping into all delivery vans the moment they pulled up to the house and would lope down the lane to the neighbor's if a van stopped there instead of here. Since they knew that he would not exit their vehicles until he got a treat, the FedEx and UPS and Airborne Express drivers all began carrying biscuits when they came this way.

His vocabulary included 23 words. When you told him to fetch the ball, he would not fetch a stick. When you told him to get the box, he would savagely tear apart any of the cardboard boxes I threw in the yard. When you ordered him to get the Mousy he brought forth a pink rubber toy he'd owned for three years, gnawing it only hard enough to make it squeak. And when you yelled Mouse! he knew that what you meant was not his mouse, but mice at large. He killed scores of these vermin in the house and in the feed shed by quickly crushing their heads, but ate only one of them—the first one he killed, which made him nauseous.

While we strolled through the river grass to the head of the island after our swim, Radish disappeared, as he often did on these day trips, and didn't join us until Kitty and I were reading in bed late that night. He jumped up between us, forcing Clara to make room, and was asleep before I could say hello. I smelled his coat and rubbed it, trying to figure out where he'd been. Here was the faint astringency of the feral mint that grows in a briar patch not even the horses can penetrate. From his belly I plucked off beggar's-lice that told me he'd visited a thicket where he'd once dined on the remains of a fool's hen that a fox had killed. And here on his hock was a dusting of wood ash that had clung there when he'd walked through a fire ring where we'd gathered around a Christmas bonfire.

But it wasn't till he farted with a burlesque blat that I knew he'd been on the trail of something dead to eat. Whatever it was—beaver, duck, muskrat?—the reek of its by-product was sweet and putrid and combustible. Kitty turned away with a groan and shut off her lamp. The first time he farted loud enough for anyone to hear, Radish yelped and ran out the door. The next time it happened he turned and barked at his butt. And then he went through a period when these emissions woke him from his dreams with a start. But the last couple years he'd grown indifferent to even the most outrageous fart, like the one that just escaped. I considered turning him from the family bed. But before I could summon the energy I fell asleep.

The slapping of the dog door woke me up at 2 a.m. Kitty and Clara were sound asleep. I threw on some clothes and went out into the antiseptic light of a full moon. I heard the rattle of Radish's tags as he trotted off, and decided to follow. Instead of heading back into the jungle, he went to the river and dove in. Out on Radish Island, he trotted to a path through the willows that ring the shores and hide from view the sandy plain within. He stopped to dig. When I appeared before him, dripping, he looked up without surprise. Then he extracted the deer femur he'd buried. Compared to his usual fare, this tidbit wasn't much to write home about. But what did I know? I sat down in the sand as he gnawed and chewed. For the first time in months I had spent most of an entire day in a state of serenity. When you make any effort to live the way a dog lives, especially a dog who dances with complete abandon from one impulse to another, the past evaporates and the future becomes nothing more than the next good thing. I must have been whispering, because Radish, bathed in moonlight and the sultry air, cocked his ear to listen. And then he winked.

One morning in February, when Radish turned away from his favorite nosh, I figured the banana must be tainted or the yogurt soured, and dumped it in the compost. But he wouldn't eat a thing I offered. Not hamburger nor cheddar nor Asian pear. When he went to his dog bed the next day, he couldn't get up, or wouldn't. It was as if he had entered the world at one end of a crowded banquet table, eaten his way to the other end, and announced that it had all been very yummy indeed but he'd had his fill. Since Christmas he'd been dwindling from congestive heart failure and a bum thyroid we were treating with drugs. And he had developed psychogenic polydipsia, a mental quirk that convinced him he was always thirsty. As he looked up at us with seamless trust, Kitty or I carried him, arms around his chest, from house to yard so he could do his business. But four days after he lay down, he messed himself. Kitty and I held a tearful meeting. It was time to call our vet.

Within seconds the phenobarbital stopped his heart and closed down his brain. As we kissed him and said good-bye, the light in his eyes went out. I wrapped him in a horse blanket and carried him outside. Clara ran from us and sat in the snow, confused. We buried him with his feed dish and a tennis ball, in the rhubarb patch, just downhill from the apple tree. It was Valentine's Day.

From Outside Magazine, Jun 2002 Lead Photo: James Minchin