Dances with dogs

One of the great ideas of the Catholic church is confession. You must admit the ability to turn even the most sullied soul sparkling white is pretty miraculous. (By the way, instead of presidential debates I favor televised public confessions begun with a chalice of truth serum.)

My confession today is that I've been hanging out with a bad crowd and have repeatedly humiliated myself doing things I once could never have imagined.

For instance, the other day my daughter Lily caught me cooing to a little dog as I tried to make him eat turkey baby food off my finger.

Also, in the photo she snapped to commemorate this moment, a small poodle is jumping up on my back. And there's a dachshund circling my feet like a land shark.

How did it ever come to this?

As a boy I had such big-dog dreams, and now I'm just a toy-dog shepherd.

My first dog was a cross between Springer and Brittany spaniels who came in a cardboard box proclaiming "Have a Burgie!"

Burgie had a nose like Sherlock Holmes. We kids hid all over Seward Park - and he found us. Through mud puddles, up trees. If we hid in a friend's house, he barked at the front door. He also barked at priests and nuns, because to him they looked strange.

When he was too old to run, Burgie found 15 pheasants in an Othello beet field, rolled over and died a happy dog.

Inspired by the life of this saint, I read every dog book in the library, from the Big Red Series to Jack London to Conrad Lorenz. And I vowed that one day I'd get the ultimate bird dog: an English setter.

When that day came, the breeder dropped a feather from a Fenwick rod into a squirming nest of six-week-old pups. One stretched out a tiny paw in a pose that made "Swan Lake" look clumsy.

Byrd was white with orange ticking and had fur feathers on her legs and tail.

A few months later I took her to the Arboretum. In 15 minutes she learned how to sit, stay, come, fetch and heel. After each successful maneuver, she sat, feet together like a perfect Catholic school girl, and asked, "Next?"

Like all great dogs, she was a gift from God.

She was half bird, half dog. In the apartment her head would lie between where the curtains met on the couch, staring out the window. In the passenger seat of the VW van, she'd scan the sky. I had to stop running Green Lake after she nailed a mallard in mid-air like a trout snapping a fly.

During SeaFair, her trembling signaled she had located the mother of all birds. My eyes followed the tail down the back to the pointing head. She'd locked on the Goodyear Blimp.

We were very happy together, and then I fell in love with a woman. She was a fetching Tugboat Annie from Broadmoor, and she put me to the test: Love me, love my dog.

He was a wiener. The first time I met Fork, he bit me. The second time, too. His attacks from under furniture were too sneaky to anticipate, and he retreated too quick for a kick. Ann made me walk him. I daydreamed paving machines. One day the next best thing showed up: a Chinese fighting dog.

Fork charged, leapt and, for just a moment, stuck on that chow's neck, like a long scarf. But two blinks later, he was flying into the box shrubs.

It took a few months for the hair to grow back over the punctures. And the next time he saw the chow, I was able to dive and catch him by the back legs. "No, Fork," I said, "this time the air force." I picked up a convenient boulder and shotputted it in the general direction. Fork and I were stunned when it actually hit. And more stunned when it bounced off. And then that chow slowly turned to us and growled: "You talkin' to me?"

We ran to live another day.

Fork's grandson, Zack, is now snoring at my feet. The bloodlines run true. Zack once took the tip of my finger off when it got between him and a piece of steak. I smacked him with a water bottle, and then he tried to administer the one known cure for baldness.

You can kill a dachshund, but you can't change their mind. The French have a great expression for them: "Grand character; petite format."

Zack's boyfriend is Miss Picky's Papillon, who looks like a black fox.

When Miss Picky called from California, I let her know that Pappy had lost a few pounds. She immediately became convinced he would be carried off by eagles. She made me promise to follow him around like a Secret Service escort.

You see what I'm dealing with here?

Maybe you, too, have noticed that there's a certain subspecies of woman (Brigitte Bardot, Bo Derek and Kim Basinger are just some of the more public examples) who'd just as soon trade men in on small dogs.

I confess I'd rather join 'em than fight 'em.

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