Tippy was our first family dog, a small brown and black rat terrier. This was at a time and place when pets did not come into the house. Everybody was still country enough that dogs lived outside—cats, too. Tippy ate well off table scraps and the occasional can of dog food. He would have turned up his nose at dry dog food in a bag. How could that compare with steak fat, scrambled eggs, turnip greens, cornbread? Tippy, like all dogs of his era, was low-maintenance, low-cost. His only visit to the vet was his once-a-year 75-cent rabies vaccination, administered generally at a public clinic on the courthouse grounds. He got some flea powder from time to time and baths during the summer, but he was generally on his own and pretty much hung around our big backyard, where he was always ready to be the pet of whatever child was playing outside and always ready for a walk in the nearby woods.
Tippy slept inside our back screened porch, sheltered from the night wind, within the ambience of our heated home in a cozy cardboard box lined with old towels. There he remained for the duration of the night, unless… Unless Tippy heard a sound or caught a whiff that might mean an intruder, throwing him into watchdog mode. Tippy would never lie in his warm box barking at intruders real or imagined. Tippy’s routine was to leap from his box, jump up and push the screen door open with his paws and rush out barking to confront the threat, while the screen door banged shut behind him, waking me in my warm bedroom upstairs above the porch.
I knew what Tippy’s heroic defense of our home cost him personally. He could open the screen door from the inside but not from the outside. Once he committed to his watchdog persona, there was no going back to his warm box. The threat vanquished or more likely found to be non-existent, Tippy had to pass the rest of the night in an outbuilding that had functioned in the past as a combination smokehouse, laundry room and woodshed—too far removed from our home to catch any of its warmth. To go down and let Tippy back into his warm box would have awakened the entire household, so Tippy, who had made his bed, could not lie in it.
As I lay in mine, I reflected on why Tippy couldn’t stay in his, why his routine had to include the rushing forth. I didn’t understand why Tippy couldn’t figure it all out and resist the urge that cost him his warm bed.
They say pets teach kids about life. Tippy certainly showed me the consequences of giving in to random urges, throwing away comfort and safety for momentary gratification. I also eventually came to understand that Tippy couldn’t help it. He was who he was, and noises in the night were going to get him up and barking, regardless. Life is like that: knowing when to play it safe and when to just go for it, doggone it.
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