This essay was originally published at Covenant, December 10, 2014.
About thirteen years ago, I was sitting in Duke Humfrey’s Library — the oldest reading room of Oxford’s Bodleian Library — “distracted,” as T.S. Eliot put it, “from distraction by distraction.” It came that afternoon in the form of Internet “research” into various breeds of Gun dog. I wanted a dog, and I wanted a good one. A British Lab owned by a college friend had made a big impression on me, and, though I had grown up with a series of Golden Retrievers, my inclination toward esotericism was leading me down virtual roads less traveled by. I read of Cesky Fouseks, Clumber Spaniels, Pudelpointers, and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers. And, finally, somewhere between Stichelhaars and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons, I met my fate: I read with deep fascination of the Hungarian Vizsla (pronounced “VEESH-luh”).
I surfed through page after page of pictures of these lithe, muscular creatures. They pointed; they retrieved; they sat there looking nobler than Prince Philip inspecting a regiment. Compelling tropes leaped from the digital pages: “natural hunter,” “household companion,” “fearless,” “distinguished bearing,” “loyal,” “gentle mannered,” “highly affectionate,” “little noticeable dog smell,” and even “self-cleaning.”
As I stared out the window toward the Radcliffe Camera that afternoon, visions took shape in my consciousness: visions of myself raising a gun behind the rock-solid point of the noblest Vizsla the world had yet seen. As the gun would fire, the dog wouldn’t even flinch. He would mark the bird’s fall and wait to be released, whereupon he would launch himself into the thickest brush, briars bouncing off of his muscles like raindrops, and the bird would be brought enthusiastically to hand. We would walk home together, with our limit of birds, through the high grass and dusky light. He would pour me a drink and lie down contentedly in front of a roaring fire as I settled into a leather chair with an improving book. That’s how it would be. But I had five years of scholarly itinerancy yet in front of me, and being a student did not seem to be especially compatible with dog ownership. Patience was needed. The vision had to be stifled. I returned to my books.
Five years later, I left Yale Divinity School a priest, having been conferred, according to my diplomas, with all rights, privileges, and insignia pertaining to the honor of being a master of both divinity and sacred theology (though the difference between the two was never fully explained to me), and I settled into parochial ministry. The Vizsla-fire had smoldered in my belly all that time, but I discovered that certain qualifications for dog ownership (like a yard) were not among the rights, privileges, and insignia with which I had been conferred at my graduation. The vision remained stifled until I found myself, in 2009, drawn idly back to my old Vizsla “research.” This time, although living in a small house in a big city and still without a yard, I located a breeder with a litter on the way, made the requisite inquiries, sat the interview, and reserved a pup.
His name is Jeb, an acronym formed from my own name (Brown) and those of my godfathers (James and Epinger), both of whom had recently died when Jeb came home with me in 2010. When I picked him up, I was full of excitement and apprehension. Would he live up to my expectations? Would I live up to my own as his master?
As with so many facets of life in this vale of tears, the answers to these questions remain unclear (and are still unfolding). On the one hand, Jeb held a stylish point on a grasshopper when we made a pit stop on the ride back to Dallas from the breeder’s. On the other hand, when I took Jeb shortly thereafter to introduce him to a friend, he immediately ran to her bedroom, jumped onto her bed, and relieved himself.
In the intervening years, life with Jeb has fluctuated, sometimes hourly, between such poles, albeit trending generally in a positive direction. He has mastered basic obedience: he will sit, stay, come, heel, kennel, and the like. He will even wait for permission to walk out of an open door or eat his dinner. But looking back on my initial “research” at the Bodleian all those years ago, I see that my willing eagerness for the realization of my vision led me to gloss over certain glaring tropes in the material. In particular, phrases like “high energy” and “requires a great deal of exercise” were lost in the idyll’s haze. And whether through a hiccough in Jeb’s genetics (his sire was a field trial champion) or through the ineptitude of his trainer (me), Jeb’s performance in the field has left a good deal to be desired. He much prefers charging about like a maniac, chasing rabbits and “marking” bushes, to sitting quietly by my side waiting for birds to come in. And when they do come in, he doesn’t like to fetch them. He would rather run or swim out to them, take a sniff, poke at them a bit, and then charge off at an exultant full-tilt.
One morning a couple of months ago, while taking Jeb for his morning constitutional, I encountered a friend who happens to be a professional gun-dog trainer. He asked how things were going, and I explained the situation as I see it. He offered to help, and, ever since, once a week on Fridays, Jeb and I drive out to a training facility at dawn for an hour or two of lessons in how to be a better dog and a better master.
My trainer friend — I will call him “BD” so as not to sully his reputation by associating it with Jeb — is one of those rare people who has an innate, almost mystical, affinity with animals. He seems to communicate with dogs primarily by means of subtle liftings of his finger and telepathy. Jeb loves and fears him, apparently with something like a combination of my attitudes toward Pope Benedict and the IRS.
Blaise Pascal once drew an analogy between man’s relationship with dogs and God’s relationship with man. I was reminded of this one morning when I witnessed BD and his best dog, Tebow, reenact Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac as recorded in the book of Genesis. There stands at the training ground a three-story wooden tower. BD had telepathed to Tebow, “Go sit on the third story of the tower and wait,” and Tebow dutifully went up, sat down, and waited.
As BD worked on fetching exercises with Jeb at the base of the tower, an impasse was eventually and inevitably reached. BD had thrown a dummy for Jeb to retrieve, and Jeb had instead marched over to BD’s truck and, in an idiotic procession, relieved himself sequentially on each tire. In order to demonstrate to Jeb what was wanted, BD hollered up to Tebow, perched like a sentinel on his platform thirty feet off the ground, “Tebow, FETCH!”
So zealous was Tebow to obey his master’s command that, after only a moment’s hesitation, instead of running down the tower’s steps, he leaped up onto the guardrail and prepared to throw himself off in the direction of the dummy. BD, horrified, raised his arms and shouted, “Tebow, NO!!!!!”
Tebow remained balanced precariously on the guardrail for what seemed like an eternity, a quizzical look in his eyes as if to say, “Sorry, I thought you said ‘fetch,’” before falling backward onto the safety of the platform, whereupon we all breathed again, and Tebow gazed down placidly awaiting further orders.
At the end of the session, BD and I were sitting on the tailgate of his truck. BD, who is a devout Christian, ruminated, “You know, I’ve sometimes wondered whether Tebow would jump off that tower if I told him to. I guess now I know.” He paused for a moment and regarded Jeb, wallowing insanely in some dirt nearby. A bumblebee caught Jeb’s eye, and he trotted off to try and make friends with it or eat it or something. Losing track of it, he briefly tried making love to a camp chair, was remonstrated, and finally skulked back over to the tailgate.
BD shook his head and sighed. He said:
Jeb’s problem is he’s a hedonist. He wakes up in the morning and wonders to himself, “What do I want to do today? Where am I gonna pee? Where am I gonna run around? Am I gonna get some bacon grease on my kibble? Who am I gonna wrestle with?”
He needs to wake up in the morning and ask himself, “How am I gonna please my master today?” If we can get him thinking like that, you’ll be surprised: he’ll be happier, calmer, more at peace in himself. And you’ll be proud…. And, by the way, I’m not just talking about dogs.
Jeb, as I say, is trending in a positive direction. And I am learning to be a better master. But ever since that conversation, my forbearance is colored by a sharper awareness of my own Master’s infinite solicitude toward me. And I am learning to submit to having the lapses in my obedience ironed out by the firm hand of him in whose idyll I was shaped before I was formed in my mother’s womb. We’ve got a long way to go.