Team Wendell

Posted by jdg | Friday, July 11, 2008 |

Our dog and eldest have put aside their differences, signed several important treaties, and formed an alliance. There was never any question that the kid loved this dog, but until recently her relationship with him was as one-sided as any of my disastrous high school crushes. The dog has always tolerated her, and shown some dignity in not biting off those little fingers probing his nasal cavities or pulling out fistfuls of his hair. Again, not so different from those girls I had crushes on in high school.

But with the significant decrease in attention he gets from me naturally resulting from the increased attention I must give my infant son, all that previously-unrequited toddler love doesn't seem so bad to old Wendell. I have caught him licking her face tenderly. When she cries in the middle of the night he goes to her door. She has stopped sticking things in his ears. They cuddle together and look out the window. He even lets her ride him around the house now like that rodeo monkey. So I taught her to yell, "Ride, Bucephalus, ride!" just like Colin Farrell.

Watching the two of them play together is everything you hope for when you decide to introduce a dog into your family: he runs around; she chases him until she's exhausted; I sip lemonade. Recently, my daughter has been telling me that that Wendell is her "big brother." She calls out as she chases him: "Big brother! Come back here (I'm not done dumping this water on your head.")

Toddler logic dictates that if one's big brother is a German Shorthaired Pointer, then, of course, one must therefore be a dog herself. Toddler logic also dictates that if one's canine big brother is entitled to do something, than his canine little sister should also be given every opportunity to do the same. That includes urinating out-of-doors with one leg raised, gnawing on rawhide, catching a frisbee, and sleeping in a cage. I have tried to talk her out of the back of the dog's kennel several times, with negotiations usually falling flat against a series of high-pitched barks. Don't tell CPS. Melissa once expressed her concerns about a certain child of hers pretending to be a dog (mostly requests along the lines of Punish me, I've been a very bad dog). Jealous of Wendell's leash and collar, Juniper recently asked me tie a long ribbon around one of those pink elastic headbands they make for bald, androgynous newborns so everyone knows they are girls. This became her "leash" and "collar." I've led her around the neighborhood by this contraption while she pants and growls at squirrels, cringing and wondering if it will be my fault in twenty years if she lets herself be led around the Folsom Street Fair by a chain attached to her nipples. Cue Iggy Pop.

This emulation took a difficult turn a couple weeks ago, when an organization known as Ultimate Air Dogs (The U.A.D.) came to the Detroit riverfront by our house. U.A.D. is a competitive sport invented by former Detroit Tiger's righthander Milt Wilcox involving dogs that jump as far as they can into a pool filled with water. When I first saw Milt down at the riverfront, I had to give it to him: if I was a former major league ballplayer who'd squirreled away some money over the years, I'd probably invent a competitive sport involving dogs that jump as far as they can into a pool filled with water, too. The U.A.D. set up its facilities a few days before a festival and every day the kids and I went down to watch the dogs practice. I decided then and there I wanted my dog to be an Ultimate Air Dog, and in doing so I unwittingly made my daughter want to be an Ultimate Air Dog, too.

One of Wendell's most impressive skills---other than climbing trees (I'm not kidding)---is his ability to jump and reach a treat held about eight feet in the air. I got out the ladder and practiced his jumping in the backyard. Juniper told me that she, too, could jump and reach a treat, but her efforts fell far short. I'd hesitate to even call what she did jumping. That damn Nursery School Olympics really boosted her self-confidence to an intolerable level. I need to find some mean little rich girls from Grosse Pointe to make fun of her clothes, stat.

After a few days of practice, Saturday came and with it the Ultimate Air Dog Championships. "Are you gonna be an Ultimate Air Dog?" I said to Wendell in my best talking-to-dogs voice.

"Me, too!" shouted Juniper. I rolled my eyes.

When we got there, I realized most of the other participants were far more serious than we were. They all had t-shirts made with their dogs' names on them: "Team Kelsi" and "Air Waffles." Some of the dogs were wearing special aerodynamic outfits and several of the humans were inexplicably wearing spandex. It was kind of like hanging out with the parents at a gymnastics meet, except their kids were, you know, dogs.

But then again, so was mine.

During a jump, the human would stand at the end of a long elevated dock while a partner held their straining, anxious dog at the other end. They bashed the dog's favorite toy against the dock or twirled it around, taunting the dog with it, calling its name until the partner let go, then they tossed the toy high into the pool just as the dog had reached the end of the dock. The dog would leap magnificently fifteen or twenty feet out into the water. A crowd of onlookers had gathered and would clap for each leaping participant. The dog parents all knew each other already and enthusiastically congratulated each other's dogs after each jump. Milt Wilcox announced the events through one of those mini PA systems. It was very serious business. I was nervous.

When our turn came, I had to hand the kid and the baby off to my wife as I mounted the dock. I didn't have anyone to hold Wendell at one end, and none of the other competitors volunteered. "Sit," I said to him up on the dock while hundreds of people waited. "Stay." I could hear my child screaming hysterically as my wife dragged her over to the viewing area, "BUT I'M AN ULTIMATE AIR DOG TOO! I'M AN ULTIMATE AIR DOG, MAMA!"

I walked backwards towards the water while Wendell sat confused at the other end. Eventually I mimicked the earlier participants and bashed his favorite chew toy against the dock, and he sprinted towards it. When I tossed the toy into the water he threw his haunches against the astroturf and slid to a halt. When I gestured for him to jump he gave me a look that said, "What, are you fucking crazy?" We tried again, and the next time when I threw the toy up in the air, he jumped tenderly into the water a foot or so from the end of the dock and swam out to get it. Subsequent attempts went the same. My heart sank. My dog was no Ultimate Air Dog. The next competitor was another German Shorthaired Pointer who easily leaped seventeen feet and caught his toy mid-air. "See Wendell: why can't you be more like Champ there?"

After slinking away to find my wife and children, Wendell went up to his little sister and shook all the water off himself, as if to say, "Here Juney, I'll share some of my Ultimate Air Dog water with you."

He needn't have bothered. A few minutes later, it started to downpour, and we were stuck in it. At some point on the walk home, that moment arrived when everyone's underwear was completely wet and there was nothing more the rain could do to us: you get as defiant as Job and decide it's no longer worth running or avoiding giant puddles, and you start to almost have fun. A Detroit cop saw my wife with her stroller and stopped his cruiser to offer us a ride home. "We're almost there," she said. "But thank you!" I was barefoot. Juniper was ankle-deep in a puddle. When we got home, we all stripped and I threw Wendell in the bathtub. He shook himself off a few dozen times, splattering the tub and the shower curtain with mud.

I wrapped Juniper in a towel, held her with that cool, delicious kiss of rain still soft on our skin. I showed her Wendell in the filthy tub. "Your big brother wasn't a very good Ultimate Air Dog was he?" She shook her head. "Do you want to go in there with him?" She shook her head again. "But I thought you were a dog, too, and wet dogs always go in the bathtub."

She took a long, hard look at the inside of the tub, with its two inches of coffee-colored water, the drain clogged by clumps of trapped dog hair. "You know Pops," she said. "I was only pretending to be a dog."

"Really?" I said, and brought her downstairs to make some hot chocolate.

[thanks again go to Xenos Mesa at Xenos Designs and Graphic Vectors for the amazing illustration on this post. Also, see the handmade clothes at the etsy store he runs with his wife]