Who Let the Dogs Out?
(December 2001)

Just after I recently moved into my new rental house, my roommate Ian asked me if I could take care of his two dogs while he vacationed in Australia for three weeks. "No problem," I thought to myself, "I'll just train them to act with restraint and behave themselves." There would be no room for compromise. I would be the strict, but loving, disciplinarian who would take pride in his pupils' learning. Of course, prior to care taking them, houseplants had been I all had managed— and those only recently.

Boris and Tasha–short for Natasha–are high-energy, Australian shepherd/border collie, adolescent siblings. Now, if you are wondering why Australian dogs have Russian names, they are aptly named after the mischievous Russian spy characters on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. Tasha is trim, athletic, and graceful, but ecstatically hyper; she often entertains herself by chasing her tail. Boris is relatively more subdued ("relatively" being the operative word) and considerably heftier. While Tasha tends to prance, Boris tends to lumber. What Boris lacks in speed and agility, he more than compensates with intimidation and artifice.

Now, Ian claims that Boris and Tasha understand 50 commands, including such popular favorites as, "sit," "stay," "off," etc. I took comfort in this knowledge, knowing that I could just sit back in the easy chair and issue directives. While I may have been a tad optimistic to hope that "vacuum" and "clean" were included in their vocabulary, I'm a trifle disappointed with my success thus far. While it may be true that they understand 50 commands, they choose to ignore them… at least when I give them. At best, they seem inclined to interpret them all to mean, "jump all over him and bark excitedly." This seems particularly true when I attempt to get them to sit so that I can put their leashes on them before taking them for walks. Actually, they take me for walks, pulling me along behind them as I struggle to keep up.

Still, I've made some modest progress in training them. They have learned to stay off of my bed… at least when I'm in the room. While I'm optimistic that I'll make some headway yet, I'm somewhat less optimistic that I'll be able to train them not to shed. "Bad dog, no shedding!" I've come to know dog hair as a way of life. It's ubiquitous, magically appearing on utensils, food, toothbrushes, and everything else destined for the human mouth. I'm half convinced that it flies jubilantly through the air, triumphantly breeding like tiny tribels. Still, dealing with this bodily refuse ain't nothing compared to their excrement. Prior to this stint, my only encounters with dog poop had been confined to the bottoms of my shoes; now I'm the master pooper scooper, thankful for having saved several years worth of plastic grocery bags.

Like most siblings, Boris and Tasha have an ongoing rivalry, particularly with regard to competing for attention. When I give attention to one of them, the other will growl jealously. Every time I sit, I am guaranteed to have two heads resting on my lap, each demanding to be petted. Hell, my girlfriend isn't half as demanding and she doesn't chew furniture.

Boris and Tasha chew everything that fits in their mouths… and many things that don't. Whenever I turn my back, anything I've unwittingly left within reach of their probing and insatiable mouths is guaranteed to have met its merciless fate. Suddenly, the world has been transformed into a previously unimaginable universe of imminently chewable items. Toilet paper, plastic bags, toothbrushes, nothing is safe from the marauding jaws. I'm terrified that they are going to chew my cellphone and render it useless just before I get that long-awaited Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes call and then move on to my favorite Grateful Dead bootleg CD for dessert. It's as if I've become the paranoid parent of mischievous toddlers with eating disorders. Recently, UPS left a large cardboard box on our doorstep for my roommate, so I brought its unknown contents inside the house. I later discovered that the Wonder Twins had chewed through the box and eaten all twelve of the 100-gram energy bars within.

You would expect that they would come running to their dishes when I serve their food, just like the eager poaches in the Gravy Train commercials. Instead, they just look at me with expressions conveying, "C'mon, you expect us to eat this dog food?" "Give us some decent human food. Say, what's that you're making for yourself over there? That looks good!" Should any crumb happen to fall onto the floor, they will immediately descend upon the scene to lick the entire area clean with impressive efficiency; half of the time I was not even aware that any morsel had fallen. Their impressive talent comes in handy when it comes to thorough preliminary cleaning of plates, pots, and pans after meals. I'm currently devising ways of extending this skill to the pretreatment of food stains on my clothes. Realizing that I may be able to con them into eating their dog food, I took a plate from the cupboard, put dog food on it, heated it in the microwave, and pretended to eat it before offering it to them. They eagerly investigated, but were not duped. Still, they followed me around the house, hoping to be fed human food. Even better, they were hoping that I would throw the ball for them.

A blue racquetball is the center of their universe. They are beholden to the little sphere, or anyone who might be willing to throw it. Everywhere I go, they eagerly follow with the ball and a pleading, forlorn expression that's hard to deny. Early each morning they begin nervously pacing the halls, whining with anticipation as they wait for me to emerge from my room for the morning ball-throwing routine. They still haven't figured out that when I arise in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom that I am not arising to play ball with them. Similarly, when I attempt to lounge in the yard, they insist on foisting the ball upon me. "OK, we've brought you a ball, so you must play with us!" Having already thrown out both of my arms, I will accept the gift and put it away, grateful for a respite from the routine. Inevitably, they will return five minutes later, offering another ball they've unearthed from some mystery trove. "OK, we're ready!" This insidious strategy continues until I've amassed an unwieldy collection of slobbery, rubber balls that ultimately forces me to yield to their cunning ploy. I figure that my only hope for salvation is to devise a way to replace my services with an automatic tennis ball server. Yet, I have found myself succumbing to their demands with increasing frequency. I have even caught myself talking to them in a gootchy-goo voice better suited for babies of my own species. It seems that if I can't change them, they are destined to change me.

See Boris and Tasha in action! Picture and Video
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