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The dog that climbed trees

A Catahoula Leopard dog: too smart for pigs Credit: State of Louisiana

Habits can be comforting. It’s important to know where to get comfort. For me it kicks in with a getting-up-and-moving procedure that is greased on skids. I climb out of bed and, once in the bathroom, turn on the shower, which takes an age before hot water finally arrives. Old house, built in 1922. Accept its (and my own) infirmities.

Then downstairs to brew coffee. The ritual is always the same: boil water, grind the coffee, fill up the French press, and set the timer for four minutes. I love it. I do not have to think about any part of this. I could do it in my sleep. And the first few sips of coffee hold a sharpness that pulls me into focus. Thank you Costco for the beans.

Cup in hand, I grab a poop bag, look at the weather, don appropriate clothing, and stir up the dog — after waking him with a kiss and caress — and we head out the front door.

The walk in the park will deliver unexpected events. That is the great thing about living in Seattle and not, for example, in Puyallup or Anacortes. I will see Jim, battling lung cancer but still picking up the minute detritus in the park. I may see Christine and her dog Bo, both bursting with energy but under control; David, a psychiatrist; or Gustaf the mortgage broker. Sometimes I see Mary, the graphic designer, and a gorgeous young woman whose name I do not know whose three crazy vislas swirl about her. One could easily stuff three tennis balls into one dog’s mouth. Another greets you by springing up to your eye level and looking briefly into your eyes.

Soon I am under the 15th Avenue Bridge and think my daily thought of gratitude for just being alive. David, a jogger with his border collie, passes me and shouts a good morning. And then, a hundred yards away, I see a figure with dog-on-leash that I do not recognize. The meetings of one dog on leash and another off can be tense. The leashed dog knows that it cannot flee. The free dog exploits this advantage. I call Cal off to the side of the trail and make him sit and stay. He reluctantly obeys, wanting to check out this new dog.

The dog that appears is large, short haired, wildly colored, and has what is called a glass eye. Part of the iris is normal, but another part looks like a weirdly colored marble. The dog stares at me, intently, something I realize most dogs do not do. “What’s this mean?” I ask. The owner smiles, unsnaps the lead, and says, “Stamp your foot.” Which I do. The dog does a fast 180-degree spin, takes off for a dozen or so feet, and then turns again. His wacky eye and the other normal one stare into my eyes and hold my gaze.

The woman laughs, amused by my being totally bewildered by the animal’s behavior. “It’s a Catahoula Leopard Dog,” she says. “Very popular in Louisiana. They use them to hunt feral pigs. Or wild pig if they can find one. What happens is that a goodoldboy and his pals climb into a pickup truck with shotguns and most likely a bottle of whiskey, put the dog in the back, and take off into the woods and brush. At some point they stop and turn the dog loose. It snorffles around for a while and then usually picks up the scent of a feral pig. It lopes off, following the scent. Meanwhile the boys have cracked into the booze and are telling stories — highly exaggerated — of past hunts and long deceased dogs.

“If the dog tracks down a pig it bays at it to get its attention. When the pig turns, the dog stares intently into the pig’s little piggy eyes. This the pig interprets as a challenge. Pigs are smart, tough, and fast. It takes off after the dog. If the pig loses interest, the dog does the eye trick again to motivate the pig to chase it. The dog has a plan. The plan is to lead this pig right back to where the hunters are still telling stories and sipping whiskey. Presumably they will hear snapping branches and general ruckus as the dog and pig race through the underbrush back toward the pickup. And as they come racing through the cozy little group, the hunters will fumble around for their shotguns and blaze away at the pig, hopefully missing one another and the dog.”

I was amazed. How wonderful that all these consciously bred dogs were designed to do a specific job. I thought I had heard of them all. But not this. “They hunt other animals as well — raccoon for example,” she said. “A Catahoula is eager to get at that raccoon; it will even climb the tree.”

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