A dog tale
A true story of dumb stunts, doggie downers, and true devotion
By Bruce Adams
|Brenda the Wonder Dog earned her name. Not the “Brenda” part; she already had that the day she showed up mysteriously on our front porch. It was stamped into the red metal tag dangling from her green collar along with the phone number of her veterinarian, which I called to ascertain who owned her. It turned out to be an elderly woman who ran a poorly maintained Allen Street boarding house, a woman who had recently died. I knew this because I had been at Brenda’s house the day before. Coincidentally, a friend of mine had purchased the dead woman’s estate, and I was helping him clean out mounds of accumulated rubbish, dog feces, and recapped urine-filled pop bottles. My friend knew Brenda from when the woman lived there and heard that the dog had been given to someone in the country, but neither he nor the vet knew who that might be. I left my number with the veterinary office in case someone contacted them, secretly hoping no one would.
Brenda was the sort of dog I always wanted. Mixed breed, she looked a lot like an English sheepdog. She had a gentle disposition and seemingly humanlike intelligence. Though technically a bitch, I couldn’t imagine anyone calling her that. The vet told us Brenda was five years old, spayed, and up to date on shots. How she had gotten to our porch from wherever she had been living would remain a mystery, but clearly Brenda had chosen us.
That first night I pointed to a blanket we had laid out in the kitchen and ordered Brenda to lie down. She did. She faithfully responded to all our spoken commands like one of those movie dogs, except no animal wrangler was signaling her from just outside the frame. A day or two later I was no longer pretending to hope her owners would call. “Can we keep her?,” I asked my wife. Renée had always been partial to small dogs, and Brenda was plainly not that. But Brenda’s charm won Renée over and she agreed. I was a little concerned about the dog feces in the tenement house. Once dogs adopt unclean habits, it’s often hard to housebreak them. But Brenda was, after all, a wonder dog; I led her to a spot in the yard and told her, “Go poo.” She did—on that exact spot—for the next twelve years.
Brenda quickly became a member of the family as pets do, and later a companion to our first son. She was a great watchdog, watching anyone who entered the house with her tail wagging. She never misbehaved, though she shed boulder-sized hair tufts, producing over time enough downy material to insulate a house. Despite our efforts at brushing her, she inevitably developed wadded fur dreadlocks. After cutting away hair balls for a few years, we decided to have her properly clipped. This was when we discovered another unexpected fact about Brenda; underneath her shaggy dog façade, she hid a greyhound physique, sleek body, tapered snout. The first time we saw her new aerodynamic appearance, Renée and I burst into uncontrolled laughter. Brenda hid. I don’t know if dogs experience embarrassment, but on subsequent shearings—which we did ourselves—Renée and I stifled our mirth.
That’s not to say Brenda didn’t continue to provide us with comic relief. She loved peanut butter, and a spoonful of the sticky treat caused her tongue to dart rhythmically in and out of her mouth for at least fifteen minutes. Nothing else moved, just the tongue. Later we discovered that this effect could be enhanced by the placement of a nylon stocking with a hole in the toe over Brenda’s head. With her nylon-compressed head fur, fluffy body, and darting tongue, she delivered a masterfully comic impression of an anteater. Brenda was stoically indifferent to the stocking and our guffaws; her impassive body language conveyed her thoughts: humans are so easily entertained.
Brenda had one unfortunate trait. She was deathly afraid of loud noises. The week surrounding Independence Day was the worst. At the sound of the first firecracker, she became psychotic. Her teeth clattered uncontrollably; her body quaked like someone’s blubbery waistline in one of those vibrating belt machines; she danced frantically as if her tail had been lit on fire. Ordinarily, Brenda wouldn’t jump on couches or beds, but in this frenzied state she attempted to burrow beneath our bodies wherever we were. When hiding under human beings proved impractical, Brenda took cover in the bathtub. I thought this move was brilliant, as our cast-iron tub would certainly provide reasonable protection against shrapnel.
We got some “doggie downers” from the vet, which mostly meant that Brenda was more likely to fall over while shaking. Plus we couldn’t always foresee the other sound that changed Brenda into Barney Fife—thunder. When thunderstorms struck while we were away, we knew we would come home to a shell-shocked Brenda hunkered down in her enamel-coated foxhole. Nighttime storms turned her into a needy heap of quivering hair that sought reassurance in human contact. We learned to sleep with our arms over the side of the bed to keep a hand on our trembling dog-child. When tactile comfort proved inadequate, Brenda would squeeze under the bed. She’d do anything to escape noise.
Once, after a particularly earsplitting thunderstorm, I arrived home from work to be unexpectedly greeted outside by Brenda, soaking wet and walking as gingerly as John Wayne in tight underwear. To say she looked like a drowned rat would be insensitive to rats. I called Renée at work: “Did you forget to bring Brenda in this morning? No? Are you sure? Because she was out when I came home.” Renée was sure. The thought crossed my mind that maybe in her frenzied state Brenda had jumped out of a first-floor window, which in our tall Victorian home would have meant leaping at least six feet off the ground. I looked around the house; no open windows or torn screens. Then an almost unfathomable idea occurred to me: Could Brenda have jumped from a second-story window? No, I thought, but I scanned them anyway and found none open. I was ready to leave it at that when a single word flashed through my mind—attic. My eyes climbed to the third story peak to find the screenless attic window open! Still in doubt I dashed up three flights where I found clinging to the attic windowsill a tuft of hair, like a wispy suicide note in Dog that said, “I can’t take it anymore.” Reconstructing events in my mind I surmised that Brenda had leapt from the attic window to escape the thunder, hit the porch roof, skidded down, and flopped another story to the ground.
That would have been something to see.
Later at the vet I was told Brenda either had a compressed disk or a sprain; they could only tell which with x-rays. I asked what the treatment was for the more serious compressed disk. “Keep her confined for a couple weeks.” “Okay, skip the x-ray; I’ll keep her confined.” So Brenda was restricted to our only bathroom for about a week and she was fine.
That’s when she earned the title “Wonder Dog.”
Brenda went on to live a long happy life. In her old age she became physically debilitated, and when we could no longer watch her suffer I took her to the vet for the last time. Walking back to the parking lot with Brenda’s empty collar in hand I began sobbing. That was seventeen years ago.
There is a brass ornament with a glued-on picture of Brenda that hangs on our Christmas tree each year. Every time I unwrap it I still get a bit misty-eyed recalling the lovable neurotic canine forever known by her family as Brenda the Wonder Dog.