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February 10, 2003


Stout (Part 1)

By Don Paul (don@irrerevo.net)

Dogs especially have genius, if genius is defined as individual distinction and spiritual communication and the ability to touch to the quick.

Like genius, dogs’ essences are transparent.

Like genius, dogs give back more than the attention invested in them. Beyond mirrors, they’re limitless resources.

Stout was a boxer-lab-rottweiler whom I cared for over five years. He died last night, just past six years old, of congestive heart failure that had succeeded bronchial pneumonia. If I meet another creature as noble, I’ll count myself twice blessed.

In November 1997 my then girlfriend, Gina, and I found Stout at the Mendocino County Animal Shelter. We’d stopped there to thank folks for the dog, Spark, we’d picked up at an S.P.C.A. adoption show in Mendocino the previous year. The woman beside a resplendent display with snapshots of pets said, “We just got a new one in you might like to see.”

"Well, we really couldn’t get a third dog, but we know people in San Francisco who are talking about wanting a dog.”

Stout bounded to the end of his tether on the pavement in back: black, underfed but roundly muscled, his eyes amber-brown above the square nubbin of his jaw. His proportions were like a compact decathlete's. “He’s beautiful,” Gina said.

We took him out to Jughandle State Park — between Highway 1 and the cliffs of the Pacific coastline — to see how he got along with other dogs. He, Spark, a runt-of-his-litter German shepherd-lab-wolf mix, and La, a female then three months past two, ran a half-mile west and a half-mile back to us, the two established dogs barking after the newcomer. They loved — love in the sense of instantaneous affinity — Stout too.

Stout was already his name. His first owner was said to be a young guy who sat Stout in the cab of his truck at his workplace all day and then complained that the dog jumped a fence to run on the beach when they got home.

The next afternoon I picked 38 fleas from Stout’s rump. His eyes shone and his jaw relaxed among his new family.

Over the next few months we learned that Stout was a dog who never backed down. Another dog’s growl or stance was enough to set him off; with a spring and a flurry quicker than one could see, his mouth at the ruff of the other dog flung the perceived challenger down. “It’s like Bruce Lee,” I said. He came to defer, however, to La, the oldest and biggest of their trio, and to Spark.

Spark, the part-wolf, would bite Stout — expert, disabling nips to the legs as Stout straddled him — but Stout would never bite the house-brother two months his senior.

We also learned how tenacious and ambitious and delighted Stout was with “sticks.” At the beach beside Crissy Field one sunny afternoon, he would not desist from trying to butt into shore a section of a telephone pole about six feet long. Three times we had to call or pull him from his task. Once he had a log securely under his paw or paws on the sand, he chewed wood with a pride and pleasure, smiling upward on occasion, I’d never seen before. His yips of conquering gladness as he subdued a piece of wood made children exclaim along with him. “What a character!” adults said.

Gina went off to Bali.

I saw more of Stout in action. It was the winter of El Nino’s drenching storms. I drove the dogs out to Fort Funston for long runs in the late afternoon. He headed south along the beach toward Pacifica. Every week landslides dropped new mounds from the cliffs. Most days the sky was lowering like a Romantic landscape.

One afternoon we took the path through iceplants by the ending of John Daly Boulevard at Highway 1, a mile or so south of the hang-gliding platform. A couple was coming up the path with their two large dogs. Stout must have seen a threat or challenge. He bounded across the plants and launched himself at the lead dog, a mastiff and golden retriever mix. The dog’s companion, a German shepherd, went after Stout. I ran toward the fight, and the couple and I shouted and pulled to break up the snarling tangle of animals — Stout atop the mastiff mix’s back and neck as the German shepherd mix bit at his side. We got them all apart. Back at home I discovered three deep, tooth-long gashes from the shepherd mix into Stout's shoulders or side.

That was early March. In April we were running north, past the hang-gliding platform and beach-obstructing sewage-treatment pipe, toward a V-like draw that would let us climb up to the walks which lead to parking lots beside the platform. We stopped to talk with a cluster of owners and dogs before a jutting of rock on the beach. One un-neutered Rhodesian ridgeback was chasing other dogs and laying its muzzle on their necks in dominance. This tawny, long-legged male weighed about 125 pounds. Stout, then 80 pounds and a year and a half, played with a stick away from the dominator’s action. The moment that the Rhodesian eyed La with his tail straight back, however, Stout shot up to square himself before her in protection. He and the Rhodesian went for each other. They wrestled with their mouths on each other’s neck over rocks and in shore water for more than a minute before we could break them apart, Stout holding an advantage of two takedowns to one.

A few weeks later the Rhodesian ran at Spark. Stout interceded, raising his shoulder and casting his eyes sideways in a look of warning that will be forever indelible to me. This time the Rhodesian turned away.

In short, I learned in the first half-year of keeping company with Stout how nobly and selflessly courageous he was.

He was also “the model dog,” as Gina said once she was back from Bali. She told me one afternoon that she’d asked Stout to sit outside her apartment’s painting-studio. Two hours later she stepped out from working and there on his haunches he still sat.

He was also “a big baby,” as I said. His capacity to give and want affection was insistent and tireless. Many a morning he swung his oversized head onto my breast during wake-up time. He rode like a happy, upright panda in Gina’s arms as she marched down her apartment’s hallway. After runs at Fort Funston he stared up at me from the passenger-seat with unblinking eyes of — I must say — grateful adoration. He and Spark and La play-fought on my front-room carpet and futon, La and Spark barking raucously as they tag-teamed the younger, their primary defender in the outer world; then they all slept with butts touching or heads on each other’s haunches.

Gina and I broke up.

Stout remained a constant. My admiration for him grew. I realized that he was as intuitively sympathetic as his household’s brother and sister. Two times after trans-oceanic flights and days of little sleep, I got so flu-ridden that I hardly wanted to lift a spoon. Those nights Stout made sure he got into my bed (Spark usually sleeps beside me). He rested his great head against my belly as if he would absorb the sickness inside.

He had a deep soul. Often our eyes would meet. His always gave complete attention and support. What did I want? Were we going somewhere? What was going on? What was it? He wanted to know and help. He was, in short, a perfect friend.

He also was tireless in play. Back and forth he chased the football that my brother and I threw in a San Diego park on holidays. Bearing his latest catch of a 20-pound "stick" squarely in his jaw along the Promenade by Crissy Field, his rottweiler pride in such carriage most raising his posture, he evoked many smiles of amazement. On sidewalks, as I talked with friends outside the North Beach post office or at a nearby street corner, he would drop down and roll to his back and wiggle, waggling his paws, head off the pavement, inviting a chest-and-stomach rub. This to-his-back pose was Stout’s favored mode when he and Spark and I engaged in yet another bout of “International Dog Wrestling” (“Never televised, always improvised!”) on the futon or my bed; he would kick and nuzzle as the “tricky human” pinned him and Spark licked and chewed my ears.

Over the past year I noticed that he was somewhat slowing down. He had a few accidents that must have reminded him of aging and mortality. In early January of 2002, tide high and a storm raining, Stout and Spark chased a young seal from its doom up on the southern Funston beach, Spark pursuing the wheeling mammal into the breakers. At home in the bath I saw that Stout’s right ear was dripping blood as he stood beside the tub to lap water from my hand — the seal had snapped off about a half-inch of ear. In June he got bitten in the forward shoulder by a small pit bull that had attacked the un-neutered Spark, a bite which happened after I’d pulled Stout back from subduing the younger, frightened, and thus ferocious dog.

Still, he and Spark took off on mile-long sprints after scents of game, south along the Funston beach, racing up hills where I had to retrieve them above the final breakwater. As recently as October we covered twelve miles on a Sunday run.

In November Stout turned six (40 in human years) and got his “birthday steak.”

This year was simply his of middle-aging, I thought.

The first weekend of December, seven weeks ago, Stout and Spark got into skunk-fights two nights running at dusk on Crissy Field. Their dead prey sprayed them flush in their faces. No amount of rolling in sand or shore water could take the smell away. Stout had it worst. Still, he and Spark had tangled with a skunk or raccoon at least a dozen times before. I’d come to accept their hunting as natural; I no longer jumped up and down hillsides and pulled my dogs’ legs and struck them with sticks in the effort to break up these fights-to-the-death. I didn’t worry about either Stout or Spark.