When Tenney, the second of my parents’ two Great Danes, bought the farm, my parents decided that it would be best, given their advanced age, to go with a more compact version of The Family Dog. Accordingly, they reverted back to their first choice of dog breed and saddled themselves with the worst dog ever – a black cocker spaniel named Skatoula, Touli for short. They had just returned from Greece and “Skatoula,”my father was fond of telling people, is the Greek word for “Little Shit.” Which about sums Touli up.
Maybe because my parents were old and didn’t move around much, Touli got it into his head that people should just stay where they were. If anyone stood up and headed, say, for the bathroom, Touli would lunge for his or her ankles, snarling and snapping. And he meant business; my parents were forever nursing some Touli-related injury that inevitably became infected thanks to the apparently toxic nature of his drool. My grand dog Albert gets anxious if anyone strays from the pack and Harry, our old collie, was forever herding the children, but corgis and collies are herders; that’s their job. Cocker spaniels are gun dogs and soft-mouthed retrievers; Touli had no business herding people and he knew it. For him it wasn’t about the flock; it was about the power.
When it comes to clothes, my husband eschews flamboyance. The only thing that trumps his aversion to standing out sartorially is family feeling. That is why he one day donned a pair of fluorescent lime green swimming trunks in preparation for a dip in the pool – his sisters had given them to him as a birthday present. This was when we discovered that Touli was an undercover officer in the Fashion Police. He took one look at Ken’s trunks and his head exploded. It was like a horror movie. Before our eyes Touli metamorphosed into the Cerberus of classical mythology, the multi-headed dog who guards the entrance of the underworld to prevent the dead from escaping and the living from entering. The only way to appease the hell hound he had turned into was for Ken to retreat to the bedroom and replace the green trunks with a more subdued pair. Only then was he allowed to pass. (Touli later had the same reaction to a set of golf clubs. Which I sort of understand.)
In order to procure treats, Touli would snatch a high value target – Mom’s glasses, the remote, and, on three separate occasions, one of my father’s hearing aids — and dive under the bed with it. Any attempt to regain the purloined object manually would result in savaged fingers and yet another suppurating wound for my parents. Instead, they would raid the supply of dog biscuits and cry, “Meat cookie! Meat cookie!” until Touli would slink out from under the bed, grr-ing, and a grim exchange of prisoners would take place. Two of Dad’s hearing aids did not survive the ordeal and had to replaced at great expense.
During meals, Touli would stand beside my mother’s chair and bark at her. He would pause in his barking every few minutes to give her a little nip – this by way of impressing upon her the fact that she’d better feed him or else. He did this all meal long, without interruption. (In our house dogs do not do this. Our first golden, Buddy, would sit silently by as we ate, looking stricken and drooling, but never making so much as a peep. As for Nellie, she’s proactive without being too pushy. First she steals the napkin from my lap exactly twice, then she lies down directly on my feet, just to remind me that she is there and would like to be considered for the prized gig of pre-rinse cycle.) One night my husband had finally had enough of trying to talk over Touli’s incessant, insistent barking. He seized his muzzle, looked him straight in the eye and shouted, “SHUT UP!” Touli stared at him, incredulous. Clearly no one had ever yelled at him before. His mouth opened and closed as if to bark; no sound emerged. I don’t know who was more shocked – the dog or my parents. “Your Mom and Dad looked at me,” Ken remembers, “and I realized I’d crossed a red line.”
My brother Peter once saw a different side of Touli – desolation in a dog suit. “Mom and Dad had gone out and there was just me at home,” he told me. “Touli sat by the window and howled. Then he collapsed on the door sill and lay there in a heap, looking completely abject, as though he couldn’t believe they had left him and he had no idea how he was going to cope going forward.” Peter then keeled over on the couch and lay there on his side in imitation of Touli, whimpering softly and shivering, looking frightened and pathetic.
Mom made me promise to take Touli if anything happened to her and Dad. I reluctantly agreed. Fortunately, that day never came. Touli contracted a rare canine virus at the young age of seven and slipped away in a matter of a couple of days – days over the course of which my parents forked out over $3,000 in an attempt to save his miserable ass.
Touli had one trick. “Find Big Mac,” Dad would say and Touli, charged with purpose, would bustle off, returning some time later with a squeaky rubber hamburger. My parents saw this as a sign of Touli’s intelligence. I didn’t have the heart to point out that there are border collies who can recognize and retrieve hundreds of different objects – one famous one can identify over a thousand. When we were packing up Dad’s apartment, I found Big Mac and gave it to Nellie. She played with it for a while, then ate it, squeaker and all.
And that was that.