It’s time for a confession. A couple of them.

Since Jill and I are traveling around the country in the company of our mutts, you might fairly assume that we are doting, softhearted “dog people.” But that’s not exactly the case.

I don’t want to speak too candidly on behalf of Jill, whose heart is much bigger and softer that mine, but I think it’s fair to state that our dog love is governed by common sense and a Darwinist view of the animal kingdom. Sure, we are susceptible to bouts fawning and anthropomorphic silliness with Isabel and Jack; but, as a rule, we do not treat dogs like children or extensions of our personalities, and people who do tend to either amuse or annoy us.

Jack

Where I grew up, in the country ’burbs north of Chattanooga, Tenn., dogs lived almost exclusively outdoors and roamed freely, sometimes in packs. They pissed and shat where they pleased, they chased cars, they swam in the lake, they ate chickens, they rolled joyously in manure, and, on occasion, they bit a UPS deliveryman or pesky, barefooted, Slurpee-stained toddler.

If you were tackled in a pile of dog shit during a backyard football game, you hosed off and played on; if your dog turned the neighbor kid’s bunny into a pile of blood and fluff, you rang their doorbell and apologized (and the kid’s parents invariably filled future Easter baskets less animate edibles); if your dog followed you to school, you scolded him in the presence of your disapproving teachers then scratched him behind the ear once you were around the corner.

This world shaped my affection for, and tolerance of, dogkind. And I guess it’s why, despite my and Jill’s residence (until recently) in downtown Phoenix, I prefer that our city dogs retain a streak of country wildness.

Without a doubt, Isabel and Jack are the best-trained dogs I’ve ever owned. They sit, they stay, they heel. They come when called (in Spanish and English) and immediately cease unacceptable behavior at not only the word “no” but angry stares that communicate the same. They do not chew what they’re not supposed to, they do not pee or shit where they’re not supposed to, and they travel with uncanny ease and gusto. I’ve never seen dogs more comfortable in a car, campground or motel room.

Isabel

Still, I cannot bring myself to train the “dog” out our dogs. I don’t mind that they jump on me when I come home from work. I don’t mind that they bark at the mail carrier and pizza guy. And I downright enjoy watching them chase squirrels and rabbits and lizards, zigzagging through a field or across the desert, cornering hard and bounding over obstacles, only to return panting, smiling and bountyless.

Which brings me to my second confession: Isabel doesn’t always return bountyless.

My friend Kreg found this out the hard way. Kreg graciously served as Isabel and Jack’s dog-sitter while Jill and I attended Sundance, and for three days he included them on nightly walks of his own dog, Sadie. Kreg and his family live in a quiet neighborhood where many nearby houses sit on big lots, some with barns and burros. One house on Kreg’s dog-walking route is home to two chunky, friendly Chocolate Labs that roam free.

Kreg’s Utah neighborhood is a lot like my old Tennessee neighborhood, which is why he’s comfortable letting Sadie walk off leash in the snow-shrouded, star-canopied solitude of night. I gave him explicit consent to walk Isabel and Jack off their leashes, too.

For me, this decision was a no-brainer. For Jill, it was grudging compromise.

For the mortified owners of a cat named Elmo, however, it was an unexplainable mistake.

It is not clear which of our dogs sniffed out Elmo, but Isabel’s scratched nose and bloody ear suggest it was she who snared him. In the chaos that followed, poor Kreg was subjected to the wails of terrified children, epithets from their screaming parents and three citations from an officer of the Davis County Animal Control Department.

Unlike two feral felines in the alley behind our Phoenix house, Elmo survived his tangle with Isabel — but not without surgery to repair a ruptured stomach and a lingering stay at the animal hospital. Kreg rightly promised Elmo’s owners that he would cover the cat’s vet bills, but Jill and I balked at that; our mutt did the damage, so we would pay the piper.

The only problem is, Elmo’s vet bill grew bigger each day he remained hospitalized. The crisis threatened to shatter our fragile budget just a month into our trip. When we left town, Elmo was still in the vet’s care. Jill gave the animal hospital our credit card number, and we crossed our fingers.

The “Elmo Situation” dominated our conversation as we drove south, following U.S. 89 past sugary hillsides stubbled with juniper trees and piñon pines. I looked in the rearview mirror to see Isabel sitting upright, her ridiculous pink tongue halfway unfurled.

“You know,” I said, craning my neck to meet her dark-rimmed eyes in the mirror, “things would be a lot simpler if you’d just finished that cat off.”

Jill gets my sense of humor, but she punched me anyway. “Shut your mouth,” she said.

We rode in silence for more than an hour. Then, about five miles north of Kanab, we passed a big sign on the left side of the road. It read: “Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.” And below that: “Tours.”

We know Best Friends Animal Sanctuary by reputation. One of our friends adopted a dog from the sanctuary a few years ago, and another friend is a fervent supporter of its mission. For animal lovers, Best Friends is hallowed ground, a place where unwanted or abused critters — dogs, cats, horses, birds, pigs — peacefully await adoption or live out their lives in a bucolic, high-desert canyon. Its tenants include 22 pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s dog-fighting operation.

“Turn around,” Jill said.

“Good idea,” I said, not bothering to slow down. “We can dump Isabel and run.”

“I’m serious. Let’s take the tour.”

And so we did.

The tour of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is free and guided. It takes about an hour and a half, and pets are welcome to come along. Isabel and Jack sat with us in a small theater as we watched a film about the Best Friends Society, then they rode in the backseat of an Econoline van as we explored the backbone of the sanctuary’s 3,800-acre operation.

We learned the sanctuary was founded by a group of friends from Prescott, Ariz., who shared the belief that homeless pets should never be euthanized. So in the early 1980s they pooled their money and purchased a ranch in Kanab Canyon — a locale you might recognize if you’ve ever seen The Outlaw Josey Wales or The Apple Dumpling Gang. These “best friends” renamed their canyon “Angel Canyon” and turned it into a haven for cast-off dogs and cats, and the no-kill shelter grew to be the largest of its kind in the country. These days it is home to about 1,700 animals.

Our guide mentioned that each year 8,000 people visit the sanctuary to volunteer as animal caretakers. This prompted Jill to slap my thigh, hard, which is what she often does when an idea strikes her.

“You should totally volunteer here,” she said.

“What?”

“You should volunteer. With the cats.”

“Cats?”

“Yes. As penance for all Isabel’s sins against them. It would be good karma.”

I love that my wife, with her polyreligious tendencies, can so casually mix Western and Eastern theology. But I wasn’t so sure I liked her idea.

“Karma would be Isabel getting mauled by a mountain lion,” I said. “What do I know about cats?”

“Exactly. You might learn something. Maybe you’d learn to respect them and keep your dog on a leash.”

Jill leaned forward so the guide could hear her over the road rattle. “How do you go about volunteering?” she asked. The guide said it was a simple matter of signing up at the welcome center or placing a phone call.

Jill sat back in her seat and smiled at me. It was her big, toothy, manipulative smile, the one that’s accompanied by theatrically arched eyebrows and a stuck-out tongue. Resistance was futile.

I turned to face Isabel, who was staring out the window with an upturned nose — blithe, arrogant, evil. “I hate you,” I murmured, careful to attract her attention but not the guide’s. “You are the worst dog in the world.”

—Scott

10 Responses to “The worst dog in the world”

  1. Seth says:

    When you roll through Cartersville, you can budget $100 to remove Jack and Isabelle’s hair from your CR-V. Sans dog hair, the back of the the civic has never looked better.

  2. Greg L. says:

    Anyone can tell by looking at the pictures of this sweet dog that it wasn’t the dog’s fault. The cat shouldn’t have been there. Or the cat ran or moved suddenly when the dog came over to say hello. Then this innocent dog jumps in surprise and is attacked by a cat and defends itself. We can see a bad rap when we see one.

  3. Brooke says:

    This is another reason why I strongly believe that the eight legs (Isabel and Jack) deserve their own bio.

    Can’t wait to hear about how it went with the furry kitties!

  4. Scott your writing freakin rocks man! I honestly look forward to reading about your guy’s exploits.

    Great post!

  5. Brett says:

    Great post! My favorite so far. Did you get to volunteer? Looking forward to hearing how that went. The first part really brought back some memories growing up. I’m going to send this one on to a few people I know will enjoy reading it.

    • Scott says:

      Brett, I’m glad you enjoyed it. We’re flattered that you’re keeping up with our travels. I did, indeed, do the volunteer thing, and yesterday I finally got around to writing a post about it. I would totally recommend that you and Kristin do weekend getaway in Kanab and try it.

  6. Mike Van Liew says:

    This is, BY FAR, the best blog I’ve ever read. Not only do I relate to your sarcastic comments with Isabel, your writing style is impressive. You know me, I rarely give compliments. This is why they should be taken seriously when I put my pride aside and dish out one occasionally. Please keep stories like this coming as I live vicariously through you two. And by the way, if Jill has a sister, hook a brother up! Take care you two.
    Mike

    • Scott says:

      Van View:

      1) Have you been dropping Ecstasy or taking hormones? What happened to the foul punk I left behind on the 6th floor of the Arizona Center?

      2) Jill does have a sister: She is out of your league and happens to be married to a bodybuilder. Sorry, dude.

      3) Thanks for the kind words.

  7. Carolyn says:

    I agree with Jill. (smile)

    I enjoy and admire your writing, if not your “lack of respect” for cats.

Leave a Reply