Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from Tooth-Fairy)
The dark boughs of the chestnut trees were almost empty. The desiccated and thorny outer shells of the fruit lay decomposing everywhere and their large leaves littered the large park where Ben and I played a few times a day. By the middle of the month, the smell of coal was strong in the air, signaling that winter’s arrival was not long away.
It was obvious almost immediately that Ben needed a ridiculous amount of exercise. Long walks didn’t cut it – in large measure because he had to smell and pee on something every few feet and it took an inordinate amount of time to make any distance. With the arrival of the cool damp weather, a time when I’d normally have started to spin my cocoon, I was instead finding myself outside trying to burn off the energy Ben had accumulated during the day.
And though a month late, nothing spelled fall in my imagination better than baseball; so one day, I returned home with a rubber ball for Ben. My arrival was greeted by the typical hyperbole of barking which was then followed with a panicked jumping as he greeted me and begged for ‘kisses’ and pets. (The dog books said to ignore him and not reward the behaviour – but the dog books had never met Ben.) And so he continued on my heels, following me, jumping all the way, into the living room where we’d wrestle and play and say our hellos.
Sitting on the area rug, I took the ball out of the plastic bag and rolled it towards Ben. To my surprise, instead of bounding at it like a Blue Jays shortstop, Ben jumped out of the way and hid behind my desk chair.
Hmm, that didn’t go exactly as I expected – “E-6, I muffled.”
In fairness to Ben, part of the problem was that he had an almost allergic reaction to the sound of a rustling plastic bag. Sometimes he’d cower and hide and bark from beneath the protective furniture; at other times, he launch into downward dog and proceed to growl and snap at the bag. It took him years to outgrow this reaction that seemed almost pathological. I have often wondered what happened to this cute little dog that ended him up alone on the streets; I wondered whether he had been accidentally separated from a traveler changing trains in the Central Station or whether he had been intentionally abandoned because he was so high-strung. His fear of plastic bags left me to conjecture, one day, that he’d been bundled up in a bag and tossed to be rid of … and the thought would break my heart.
I quietly removed the bag from the floor and then repeated to toss him the ball a number of times, but with the same result: Ben would scurry away from the rolling object and bark. I then tried rolling it away from him with a bit better success; but while he approached it, he did so guardedly. I have no real idea what was going on inside this dog’s head, but I was damned if my dog was going to be afraid of a ball. The baseball player in me was committed to playing ‘catch’ with my newfound friend. So I persevered, uttering words of encouragement and played along with him. Thankfully, Ben also persevered. Finally, at one toss, Ben ran at the ball, growling and snapping, finally having enough it seemed, and pawed at it, like a cat clamping down on a mouse … the ball stopped and then scooted as Ben swatted it with his snout in a bid to poke it with his nose. Startled at the ball’s sudden movement, he pounced on it with the whole of his body to which the ball responded by squirting away under the coffee table. Ben growled and then with a high-pitched bark, he bounded forward and snapped at it with his mouth, catching it between his teeth. What came next was hundreds of years of breeding and instinct as he snapped his neck back and forth, shaking the ball in his mouth whilst still growling. He was trying to kill it like the terrier inside him knew instinctively to do; he had gone to ground to fetch this rodent and was now viciously breaking the back of the rubber ball.
The ball then flung out of his mouth and before I could reach it, Ben was on it again, and the a killing growl recommenced. Finally, after many minutes of me smiling and Ben playing ball-killer, I got the ball in my hands and Ben went into downward dog again, legs outstretched, and claws sunk into the carpet for grip. I tossed the ball to the side, and Ben sprang forward like a cowboy lunging to tie a calf. Within minutes, Ben had gone from ball coward to some gladiator who’s soul purpose in life was to destroy rolling spheres of rubber. Ben had found his purpose ….
Over the next few days, we took our sport outside for some serious fetch. Ben showed himself to be agile and focused and very adept at catching the ball, no matter how far I threw it. What he was slower to learn was the real concept of fetch … let alone releasing the ball. However, he was now getting some serious exercise sprinting after the ball – and I was getting a goodly amount myself each time I sprinted after him, each time he was distracted by a piece of garbage in the park. This was about the only thing he’d drop the ball for. He would otherwise cling to the ball like Golem to his precious. Indeed, so attached was he that even when panting and gasping and needing a break, he’d do so with the ball still wedged between his teeth. I learned very quickly what terrier tenacity looked like.
Over time, and with the parallel training we were doing to teach him to “come-sit-stay,” Ben began to learn fetch. Sometimes I’d deke him and pretend to throw the ball in one direction. He’d run full steam ahead like Donovan Bailey out of the sprinter’s blocks then come to a screeching halt when the ball didn’t emerge in his path as he expected; he’d look back and see I still had the ball, begin barking, and then I’d throw it in the other direction; he’d come charging back and past me and you’d swear you could hear the pounding hooves of a thoroughbred as he drove by.
When he eventually learned to drop the ball, and only after much coaxing, he’d bark at me and then lunge at the ball himself before I could pick it up. It was a dangerous game of keep-away or chicken – and I wasn’t the one running that game. Eventually we worked this part out too, but it seemed the barking was a big part of it. However, that fact that Ben preferred to bark without the ball in his mouth didn’t mean he couldn’t bark with the ball in this mouth. Riled up and impatient, he eventually drop the ball, stare at it like junky at a bag of dope on the ground, bark, encourage me to play and throw the ball – and then dash off even before fingertips touched rubber. But as the park was really a very large series of court yards and fields surrounded by numerous other drab, gray apartments, an echoing canyon of social realism, he started to drive certain ‘neighbours’ crazy with his barking and I’d periodically get sworn at in Polish through an opened window.
With the mastery of fetch and the exercise that ensued, Ben’s behaviour started to change. He mellowed by degrees, which, given that he was well off the scale in terms of hyperactivity, meant that with the exercise, he was just hyper and crazy. This was a big improvement. But it also cemented our relationship as Ben and I found a common area that would bond us and unite until he retired from fetch; at the age of 14 or so, arthritis in his left hip emerged, slowed him down, and eventually took him out of the game. Up until that moment, I was convinced that my hard driving dog whose heart pounded like a triple-crown stallion when we played, would, when he was ready to pass away, one day drive past me for the ball and die of a massive coronary. Nobody that ever knew him ‘young,’ would never have guessed that he would out-live one of his three most favourite things in life: me, food, and the game.
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – “You Really Love Him”