Sounds like a line straight out of Mickey Spillane: It’s not every day that a long-legged curly-haired redhead named Gingersnap comes along and grabs your heart and makes it sing, but it happened to me, and I wouldn’t have missed it for all the world.
I had lost a wonderful Chessie named Willow a year earlier, and despaired of having another of those wonderful brick-headed whiskey-eyed creatures… the going price for puppies was $800. All the same, ever hopeful, I was browsing Craig’s List and there she was. Her family, who loved her dearly, had to downsize their dog population, and since they had a best beloved older Chesapeake retriever they could not bear to part with, they decided to share their 18 month old with someone offering a suitable home at a price I could afford. Her family lived near my sister, so I asked her to go on a mission for me and visit to see whether she might be the one. Sister Skits soon emailed back “She’s beautiful! Photos attached.” … and so she was. Margaret, my Georgia cousin and loving owner of several “best-beloved” dogs, knew how much I had missed Willow, and insisted on treating me to this new puppy. Then one good neighbor built a worthy doghouse, and another put up a fine big pen, since Gingersnap, or Snappy as we began to call her, was accustomed to the “kennel up” command for nights and rainy days. Gingersnap was a community project right from the get-go.
A couple of weeks later we went to pick her up. I think her only real experience with car travel had probably been for puppy shots, so she was less than impressed with the idea of getting in the car. It took her Mom, my sister and I all three to get 85 pounds of determined puppy into the car and safely close the lift gate, so once she was loaded we traveled pretty much nonstop to her new farm where I opened the door & said “Welcome to Foxfire!” She looked me in the eye and said “That’s all well and good, and I’m sure you’re a fine person, but it’s not home and I’m not getting out, and you can pull my head off with that leash if you want, but all it’ll get you is a headless dog in your car.” There were times in my life when I might have been hassled by this, but age is good for a few things, and so I waited & chatted with her, & offered a bucket of fresh water and treats, and eventually the farm looked less foreign and more interesting, & out she came.
Of course I knew there would come a time soon when she would need to be a willing traveler, since shots and spaying were in her near future, so after a day or two of getting used to her new home, I put her leash on and opened the car gate & said, in my most positive and cheerful voice, “Okay, Snap, hop in!” She gave me the same look and message she had earlier about getting out of the car… I tugged on her leash & encouraged her until I was worried she was going to look like a giraffe with her neck all stretched out. I finally managed to shove her in, but of course, when I let go to close the lift gate, she slithered right out again, sat nicely, & said quietly, “Told you so.”
It was time for me to fall back and regroup. Chesapeake Bay retrievers are noted for looking people right in the eye, and studying them at length, and are really good at staying one step ahead of their “masters”. I would need to be both wise and wily.
That evening I cooked a nice little venison roast, and when it was cool, sliced it into delectable treat-sized pieces, wrapped and froze many of them, but saved out several days worth. In the morning I put Snappy’s leash on her and we went to the van and opened the lift gate. I held on to the leash and, assuming my role as leader of our “pack”, crawled in, (not to get much into age issues, but crawling around in a van is not what it once was for me) with Snap watching me attentively from her seat on the grass. I talked a while, then opened the venison treats & let her get a good whiff, & then a taste. I moved the treat hand further back in the van, but was still sitting there, and after some thought she hopped in beside me, got her treat and immediately turned to get out, but I managed to close the lift gate with both of us inside, then I crawled over the passenger bench seat and into the driver’s seat and we drove to… here comes the wily part… the Creek!
If you know about Chesapeake Bay retrievers, you know that water is where they’d always rather be; and Snap was a happy camper. I had bought a Frisbee for the occasion, and threw it up the creek for her over and again. She would bring it back and drop it for me most of the time, but really loved burying it in the mud on the creek bank, then using her huge paws to muck it out. By the time I was ready to go, Snap and the bank looked like a hog and her wallow, and the shiny new Frisbee looked like a strangely fringed 4” disk… but she’d had a wonderful car trip!
Until the venison treats ran out she kept me believing she needed them to get in the car; and I became fairly adept at crawling over one seat & between the others; but when the day came the treats were gone & the choice was Be Stubborn or Miss the Creek, the Creek won. Not too long after that I took her to the river, which she enjoyed, but she always loved the creek best, exploring it upstream & down, while I sat on the back deck of the van watching her or reading, with NPR playing loud enough to keep the bears away.
Snappy Moves In
Gingersnap had never experienced indoor living, and the general consensus seemed to be that she would not make a good indoor pet, nor would she be house trained. As I mentioned, good neighbors had built her a big pen and a wonderful doghouse and she very quickly made these her home turf, and spent lots of time in the pen the first week or so, until I felt she had her bearings and wouldn’t get lost running a deer. I did miss having a dog in the house though, not necessarily at night, but from time to time during the day when the weather was lousy or I couldn’t be outside much, so I kept inviting her in. At first Snappy’s take on coming in the house was just like first getting in the van, i.e., “not gonna happen”; but by now she and the venerable black cat Bill had reached détente, and she could see thru the glass door that good things, like FOOD, happened to Bill in the house, so she decided to chance it… and it was ALL good! There was a comfortable dog bed, and things always falling on the floor at sandwich making time. There was even a naptime, and naps are another Chessie specialty (Chessies have a wonderful purring kind of snore). The kennel still worked fine for night time, but the house was not so bad after all.
The upstairs was a mystery though. She would watch me climb the stairs, then listen to my footsteps and follow them through all the downstairs rooms & come back to sit at the foot of the stairs, head cocked, trying to puzzle it all out. One afternoon when I had been upstairs at the computer longer than usual, I felt eyeballs on me, & looked ‘round from the computer to see Snap peeping around the office door. As soon as we made eye contact, she was gone like the wind, breakneck back down to the bottom of the stairs.
Of course, after that she got a little bolder, then a little braver, & when she finally began to explore upstairs and found she could see forever out the windows (and not only that there was a comfortable bed upstairs too!)... she became a regular upstairs companion & would join me in the evening there to watch a little TV. She was fascinated by & very curious about the dogs and cats in commercials, and left lots of large noseprints on the otherwise pristine flatscreen. One of my daughters had taken a look at our first Chessie & said “Her nose looks just like a mucilage bottle.” I found it functioned much the same, especially on flatscreens and glass doors.
I had gotten in the habit of putting her out at , but after a week or so, didn’t have to call her. As soon as she heard the final theme music from Jeopardy, she’d be at the door waiting to go. We’d go outside, I’d say “Kennel up!” and she’d go right in to bed. Of course, once she could stay in the house with no housetraining disasters, she inveigled herself in for the night, too.
When I had decided to get a dog, I’d begun reading about the care and raising of them for the first time (after a lifetime of having dogs around!) and was interested in the meaning of the pack to a dog, and how a dog looks for leadership to the senior & wisest of the pack, which works out well if that happens to be the owner. Snappy, raised with an older Chessie, never had any desire to be the chief dog, & seemed to be perfectly happy letting me be the leader, and Bill-the-Cat second in command. (We didn’t burden Bill with this information. Everybody knows cats aren’t second in anything. He’d have been traumatized.) Snap woke up in the morning ready to run out and seize the day, and Bill took a more leisurely approach, studying the great outdoors to see 1. whether it was safe and 2. whether there was anything out there that was worthy of the morning’s hunt. Snap, meantime, would have made several circuits of the yard &, remembering her pack etiquette, be back at the door, tongue down to her knees, saying “C’mon, Bill, c’mon! It’s a great day to be leader of our pack!” … and Bill would mosey out as only a cat can mosey, body English clear to everybody but Snap that “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming, but I’m a solo act, Buck-o, not the leader of anybody’s pack”, & they’d set off on the day’s adventure. I do think Bill was privately delighted in having a 100 pound sidekick; and the two of them enjoyed napping on the rug together after the hunt. Whenever Snappy had been out alone, as soon as she’d lie down, Bill would do a foot check, sniffing each of her feet to find out where she had been & whether she did anything interesting while there.
Snap Meets the Neighbors
Gingersnap’s first intro to the neighborhood was to the good soul who built her new house, our farm manager Chris. They hit it off right away, and Snap soon found that Chris came with a lot of nice extras… his wife Jennifer, a real pushover for a puppy; 4-year old Logan and his sister, brand new Cobianne; and their dog, Kayla. Kayla has a very impressive bark, just so you know she is a chief dog, although if she’s called on it, she shrugs & says “Or whatever”. We wondered if Snappy would be too big & bouncy for Logan, but their first time playing together answered that. It was one of those wonderful summer evening rains that linger in everybody’s childhood memory, and Logan & Snap were chasing ‘round and ’round, and with every round, Logan’s britches were getting soggier & soggier & dragging lower and lower, til he came out of them entirely… and neither Snap nor Logan missed a step… and they both slept very well that night.
Most evenings Snappy and I would walk up to the next farm, which was mostly the property of a border collie named Millie; and part-time, a beagle named Charlie Brown. On our arrival, each dog would get a treat. Snappy’s & Charlie Brown’s, of course, were gone almost before they knew they had them, but Mil liked to take hers back to her pen to eat at her leisure.
Just as the Creek was Snap’s idea of Heaven, Millie most favorite thing was to hop in the farm truck & ride around inspecting her cattle. Given any options, she would have chosen being in the truck, whether it was going anywhere or not. She was in her favorite company, and running the place without the actual having to run part. She was also very much a chief dog, and many’s the young whippersnapper who thought that 40 pound ball of black & white fur was a pushover. Millie straightened them all out, the large & the small alike, so that the next time they encountered Mil, they were more inclined to salute & say “Sir”. Snappy recognized this pretty quickly, and would sit respectfully on the opposite side of the lane when Mil was out. (Sometimes, if Charlie Brown was around, he and Snap would sit together across the road and mutter a few less than praiseful remarks about the top sergeant across the way.) There were some advantages to being on that side of the road, though… that’s where the occasional baseball game happened, and the first time Snap saw that going on she sat and studied it for a long time, knowing that a dog must fit in there somewhere, but not quite sure where to jump in. The decision came when a grounder came rolling right to her. She snagged it, started to run away with it, but without too much persuasion put it back in play. The kids were kind & let her stay in the game; and nobody mentioned that the new player had turned the baseball game into a game of slobberball.
Sometimes on visits to Millie’s house Mil was in her kennel, and Snap could visit with Mil’s owner, getting lots of head & ear scratching in the process, which was just fine. Mil’s owner has
amazing rapport with animals great & small, and he soon introduced Snappy to one of the reasons for his uncanny puppy-rapport… Hot Dogs! He kept a pack of Hot Dogs in the barn fridge just for his four legged friends! What a prince of a man!
Snap’s attitude adjustment at this new information was fun to watch. Where before Mil’s master had been a nice guy who’d scratch your ears for you if you happened to wander by, now she would sit at his knee, gazing up with absolutely adoring eyes, & I swear, she somehow made her ears & eyelashes longer & curlier… and if he didn’t notice soon enough that she was telling him something, she’d leave his side just long enough to gently bump the door to the fridge room where the hot dog stash was kept. Shameless!
Gingersnap Rides Shotgun
By September the ride-shy puppy was a seasoned traveler who would hop into the van at a moment’s notice. She had discovered Road Rabbits* on our walks, and would run like the wind with those long legs stretching out, chasing them for all she was worth. When the weather cooled, we began taking a ride in the evening around the large circle that is our neighborhood, checking to be sure everything was safe & in its appointed place. She’d stand in the back of the van with her elbows resting on the back of the passenger seat, eyes on the road aheadtil I said “Road Rabbit”, then she’d lurch around & follow the little critter from every window in the vehicle. When we added “Squoil” to her vocabulary we had enough game options to keep the van rocking with 100 pounds of Chessie careening around the van interior like Evel Knievel in the motorcycle cage.
*Road Rabbits are the ones you always see in the middle of gravel roads. My husband told his little Cub Scout passengers one evening that they shouldn’t shoot Road Rabbits. When one of the little guys asked why not he told them “It’s dangerous. You can’t eat them because they’re full of gravel, and when you shoot them the shot ricochets all over the place & could kill you.”
Our farm is a choose-and- cut Christmas tree plantation, and Thanksgiving, when we opened for business, was Snappy’s debut as Foxfire’s Christmas Tree Dog. Kayla was also around the shop during the season, having a wonderful time being more-or-less chief dog, and one of the best visuals I have in memory of shop season is the day I parked the van at the shop with the back gate up, getting ready to put a load on for town later in the day. Kayla saw the gate open and jumped in, and went up to sit in the driver’s seat, and was enjoying the view from there. Snappy noticed this, & put two & two together… the chief dog was getting ready to drive somewhere! Not to miss a good ride, Snap hopped in the back and put her elbows up on the passenger seat; and when I saw them, Kayla in the driver’s seat & Snap eager to go right behind her, I knew Snap was saying“Okay, Kayla, Hit it!”.
Gingersnap, Christmas Tree Dog
Our earlier Chessies had done a wonderful job of being Christmas Tree dogs during our first twenty-five years, and we had every reason to think Snappy would also; at the same time, that’s a lot of strangers to meet and greet with a wag of the tail, and a lot of little folks to be gentle with, especially for a bouncy 2-year old pup… but not to worry. She quickly discovered that toddlers with candy cane all over their faces were the most fun for puppy kisses; and that people really appreciated it if the Foxfire Dog went with them to find THE tree. The second week she hosted tree-cutting she got fan mail, a first for any of the Tree Dogs of Foxfire.
Foxfire has several fine wreath-making Elves, and all of them are pushovers for a good dog, particularly Rita & Bev.Either of them could be counted on for a kind word or a good ear-scratching, most often accompanied by a treat of some kind; and a couple of times Rita bought her good dog Joey over to play & he and Snap had a wonderful time running as hard & fast as they could. She slept hard & snored loud after her “Joey” playdates.
Snap and the Group Hug
Snappy’s life was complicated by the fact of having a mixed two- and four-legged pack. I believe she used that long thoughtful gaze of hers to decide which traits to adopt from each subset. Most of course were of the 4-legged sort; but there was one 2-legged custom she deemed worthy. Snap always was especially fond of sister Skits; after all, Skits was the first member she’d met of her new “pack”. She noticed that every time Skits came to visit for a few days, I would go out with greetings & salutations and, of course, a big hug. Imagine Skits’ & my surprise when she arrived for the weekend, steppedout of the car and I gave her the ritual big hug… and Snappy stood up on her hind legs, making her taller than either of us, put an arm around each of our shoulders, and made it a Group Hug, tail wagging and tongue licking all the while.
The Hug was mostly reserved for Skits & I, tho’ she tried it once with someone else who was not entirely sure about big dogs who kept all four feet on the ground, let alone six foot tall Hugging Dogs. Snap sensed her reservations, & after that kept her hugs for Skits & I until the day she perceived a Very Great Need for one of her special embraces.
A Christmas Hug
One of our dearest Christmas Tree Families, a young husband and wife with small children, had one of those times several years back that tests body and spirit. The doctors had located several tumors in the husband’s brain. They were inoperable, and when they came to cut their Christmas tree my conversation with the young wife made clear that the prognosis was not good. The whole family had a wonderful time getting their tree and they children loved running and playing with Snappy’s predecessor, Willow.
In the spring that year Willow passed away after a long and happy life. A few weeks after, I decided to call the family to see how things were going, and there was very good news… the tumors had gone away! We had a good conversation, catching up, and I mentioned that we had lost Willow. The wife & mother thanked me for letting her know, so she could tell the children before they came for a tree next time. “You know, Mrs. Samuels, we talk about Foxfire and Willow all year long, and when the children are bored, sometimes we play a game that starts with ‘…and what do you think Willow is doing at Foxfire today?’, and the children makeup stories about what adventures she might be having.” I was so glad I’d called.
This last December the dear folks came in and met Gingersnap and loved her instantly, & she ran with the children ‘til none could run any more. While the children were running I had a chance to see how things were going with their folks, and it had indeed been a very rough year. The tumors were back and had spread, and radiation & chemotherapy lay ahead. Thankfully, the pain was controlled, but the strain was visible in Mama and Papa, each of whom confided in me about feeling that the other one had the tougher job. The future seemed once again very uncertain for all.
When all the running was done and it was time to leave, I put my arms around these two remarkable human beings in the hope they would be well and happy when we should see each other again… and Snappy, somehow perceiving the need, stood up and put her long fuzzy arms around all of us!
Snap was still a lot of puppy… but inside was a very old soul.
In the spring of this year, on Easter Sunday, Millie left us; and less than two weeks later, Gingersnap was gone as well.
Four wheels trumps four paws, every time.
As a child I had no problems believing in the magical, mystical or miraculous. I came from a clan that never placed artificial fences in the possibilities of the Universe. So I am sure that the life force that was Snappy and the life force that was Mil are out there somewhere, shaping the future.
A few years back, our regional Governors’ School students were assigned the task of using their richly inventive minds to name new heavenly constellations, and then create the mythology to go with them. I had an opportunity to read about several of these astronomical wonders, and they were wonderful…
So I intend to lie in the grass in July when the Milky Way is a great shimmering sash across the sky, and I expect to see a new constellation. It will roughly resemble a pickup truck, with a smallish canine shape on the driver’s side, and a largish one, with lots of variable stars constantly moving, on the passenger side. If I look closely at the smaller figure, I’m sure I’ll see a star in the muzzle area flash sharply from time to time, when Canis Mil barks to Canis Gingersnap “… and stop schmutzing the windshield looking for Road Rabbits already!”