Friday, December 14, 2007

Well-trod trail

We are having some sad and stressful times in the Starkadder family, so instead of writing about all that I'll return to comfortable and happy territory: the dogs.

Nelly, who just turned 11, has decided that she does not want to go on walks in the morning. Or rather, she wants to go, but not until it is sufficiently light and dry out. For years Enrico has rousted himself at 6 am to feed the dogs, let them out, and then walk them. Lately, once the breakfast is done, Nelly bolts for the bedroom and jumps up on the bed next to me. She hunkers down and stares at Enrico, a black dog invisible in the darkened room except for her reflective eyes, clearly daring him to try to get her out the door.

This is remarkable not just because Nelly, like all dogs, loves walks. It is also remarkable because she has a complex set of largely self-imposed rules, one of which - nay, several of which - involve the etiquette of the humans' bed, otherwise known as Home Base. Dogs may only come up on Home Base upon invitation from the humans. Said invitations may only be accepted in the morning after breakfast, or during a daytime nap involving one human (but never two). Dogs may not spend the night on Home Base, except when one of the humans fails to come home for the night. Getting up onto Home Base in the evening before bedtime is forbidden when both humans are at home, even if a sincere invitation is extended. It's an abomination against the universe, and that's all there is to it. The fact that Toby is willing to break this taboo each and every evening does not change the absolute wrongness of it, and Nelly is confident she will be proven right on this score eventually.

Home Base also has magical protective properties. It is the only place Nelly will flip on her back and present her belly for rubbing. She's a proud and cautious dog, and Home Base is the one spot where she feels safe enough to make herself that vulnerable, even to us. It's the one place where she doesn't mind being packed together in close quarters, where Toby is allowed to snuggle up against her. There is no fighting on Home Base, not even so much as a warning growl. Home Base is the inner sanctum of the den, where the pack piles in together in a heap for warmth and comfort.

Thus it makes sense that Nelly takes refuge there from the unspeakable horrors of a pre-dawn walk in the Seattle drizzle. What's surprising is that she is letting herself up without an invitation, breaking one of the most basic rules. Once up, even the offer of freeze-dried liver will not pry her loose. "If she had clamps on her feet," Enrico said one morning, "she would engage them. She's not coming down."

So Enrico and Toby head off into the dark, dank morning now, and Nelly and I spend a little longer curled up together, content to wait for a more light before venturing out of the den.