May 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Red Dog

By Helen Garner
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
A pet’s mutiny

In January my family, who live next door, went down the coast and left me in charge of our vegetable garden and their dog. Excellent. I would spend the summer reading novels on my bed, and every morning and evening I would take the red heeler to the park and make him run his furry arse off.

When Dozer first arrived from a rescue shelter in the Mallee, he flinched at sudden hand movements, and cowered if you came round the corner carrying the hose; but under a benevolent regime he soon became confident and calm. He was very, very good-looking, with large pointed ears, Amy Winehouse eye make-up, and leaf-shaped patterns of dark brown along his spine.

My son-in-law had once been the master of a legendary blue heeler called Tess, whose death in old age had prostrated him with grief for a fortnight. He and my daughter worked hard to train the red pup right. He would sit, lie down, stop, stay. He was an outside dog. The family drove away. I moved his gear from their back verandah to mine.

The summer was hot. At the park each morning, as the sun rose, he stepped out of the car and on to the grass with an unhysterical tread, and raised his face handsomely to the dry air. I hurled the ball into the blue and away he flew.

He was so smart: he knew to stay off the bike path when the helmeted warriors came streaming through from the north, scattering their curses. He was so obedient: a faint whistle between my teeth and he was at my side. He was so sociable, so sweet-natured: one day a svelte young whippet took a shine to him; flowing alongside him as they raced, she got a grip on the loose skin of his cheek and hung on. I quailed against a tree trunk, but he remained nonchalant, grinning down at the weightless parasite. They sped in tandem to the far end and returned at a canter, all smiles.

He was a heavy-chested, square-set dog. Neither of us liked a leash. Of course, I always had one on my person. But it was only a token. The dog and I understood each other. He was at my back door at six every morning, not whining or barking, just breathing with his mouth open. He knew not to barge between the car’s front seats as I drove. We couldn’t get there fast enough. With the Chuckit! I bought at the pet shop my throws became magnificent. While he tore about after the ball, I stood in the park’s centre, cracking jokes with a loose group of humans. Perhaps they even accepted me. The breeze skimmed across the mown grass and rustled the coloured plastic shit-bags we had tied to the curved handles of our launchers.

One morning, after a night of rain, it struck me that our routine had become rigid. Was there nothing in a dog’s life but work? I left the ball and the launcher in the laundry. I clipped the lead round my waist and we set out for the park on foot.

At first he kept looking back over his shoulder, waiting for me to produce the ball. When I made it clear I hadn’t brought it he accepted my ruling, and trotted down the sloping streets in the dark, running and swerving at random, sniffing posts and pissing on them, following trails the way dogs are supposed to. We skirted the park and, as it started to get light, headed up the steep lane towards home. Behind the high school I saw the first cars zip through the roundabout. I unwound the lead from my overalls and called him. He propped. He gave me a stare I couldn’t read. And when I grabbed his collar and clipped the lead on to the ring, he burst into a rage.

He got the lead between his jaws and dragged, dragged at it, growling and panting. He hauled it behind me, whirled it this way and that so I was spun around. He yanked it, threw his weight back on his haunches so the woven fabric stretched tight between us. I shouted his name. His teeth were bared to the ears, his brow lowered over the savage shine of his black eyes.

Astonished, I fought him for the lead. Close to me in our twisting struggle he bit me, twice on the left forearm, twice on the right, bang, bang, not skin-breaking bites but blunt blows, like punches. I cried out. I held my ground beside him, gripping the lead, and rapped out the only command left to me: “Sit! Sit!”

He sat. It held, the fragile structure of his training, though his eyes burned fiercely up at me from the level of my thigh. My heart was going like mad. I let him off the lead. He scampered across the road and I followed like a supplicant.

We had another two blocks to go. He ran ahead of me, co-operating at corners. Once he grabbed the dangling sleeve of my raincoat and gave it a sharp wrench. Several times he dawdled till I caught up, then threw himself heavily against my legs, jostling me with the full weight of a cattle dog. We crossed the railway bridge and he gave up on me, ran on ahead in scorn, tail high, head in noble position. I limped behind, shaking and sweating, still holding the leash.

Early next morning, with an embarrassing bruise on each arm that would keep my sleeves rolled down for a week, I returned to the exact custom that I had first established and then flouted. Since that day, at home and out in the world, he has behaved towards me with impeccable grace and affection. But we both know that the compact between us has been broken. He senses that, beneath my crisp commands, I have lost my nerve. He likes me. He needs me. He humours me. But I am afraid that somewhere in his wild dog’s heart, he secretly despises me.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is a novelist, short-story writer and journalist. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s BachThe Spare Room and This House of Grief.

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