Hippie Squared: It Ain’t Cool to Make a Fool Out of Gracie


a blogumn by Jeff Rogers

Dogs are like children. One of the best ways to manage them is through ritual. Dogs love ritual. They’ll even create their own rituals. Dogs, particularly working dogs, love to have a job. They love to feel that they’ve done their job and done it well. Gracie was like that.

gracieUntil Gracie died two weeks ago, we had five dogs. “Two’s company, three’s a pack,” my wife and I like to say. Meaning, once you get three or more dogs they develop a pack dynamic, a group dog life separate but intertwined with the larger pack that includes the human contingent. Ritual was very important in our pack to keep things more or less orderly. Gracie, an Australian cattle dog mixed with terrier, in her prime was pack boss—guardian of the rituals—and a bossy boss at that.

At first glance Gracie’s coat was gray, but on closer inspection it was white and black interlaced. She had black patches, and a black and brown mask. Her hair was wiry. She had a scruffy snout, and black lips that curled back when she gave the other dogs direction with a barely audible snarl, and black fierce eyes. In her youth she sported an unintentional Mohawk, with a streak of gray hair across her crown that stood straight up if you fluffed it. But she didn’t like it when you did that. Gracie was protective of her dignity.

We often make up songs about our dogs. Gracie’s song went like this:

She’s no fool
And it ain’t cool
To make a fool out of Gracie.

To Gracie, love was humiliation. If we tried to hug her she would growl and stiffen against it, snarl over our shoulder at any of the other dogs who might be watching. “Don’t get any ideas,” she told them, “doesn’t mean I’m weak.” It was a study in the burdens of command. One of the ways that we knew she was getting old is that she began to accept, and even ask for, affection.

But in her prime Gracie could keep our dog Red, a generally mild and sweet golden retriever/pit mix, out of the living room with just a baleful stare from her queen’s spot on the couch between us. Red would stop at the entrance to the room, and with a sort of harrumphing sigh he would turn his back and lie down behind the invisible forcefield she cast.

The ritual here was that one of us had to “sponsor” him, as we called it, into the room. We would get up from the couch and walk between them to break her laser stare, then call, “C’mon, Red,” and walk him to his dog bed by the TV, his safe spot. Like walking your kid to school past the neighborhood bully.

The funny thing about this was that in a real fight Red could kick Gracie’s ass. In fact, he once did. Because dominance is not about physical strength, it’s about strength of will. And through the politics of our pack we learned that dominance is not a simple thing. Gracie dominated Red in all things but one, and that was food.

Once early on they were eating breakfast and we weren’t paying close enough attention. Gracie was a dainty, picky eater. Red was a scarfer. He ate like his life depended on it. He finished first, and went for Gracie’s bowl. We heard her growl, we heard his offended bark, and next thing we knew they were in one of those Tasmanian devil dogfight balls, a blurred snarling whirl of tumbling tangled dogs and growls with one climactic yelp. Before we could pull them apart Red had bitten a chunk of Gracie’s ear off. It lay like a bit of tufted sun-blackened beef jerky on the white tile floor at the end of a swirling trail of thick red and thin copper lines of blood.

Gracie never challenged Red for food again. And we had to ritualize breakfast. Everyone had their spot. Gracie got her bowl first, then Susan the cocker mutt mix with the lame leg got hers, and as they joined the pack, Yucky the little scrappy street dog and Molly the big black lab, with Red always last. We had to stand guard in front of Gracie until she finished. She always left Red a small tribute of food at the bottom of her bowl, but she gave him one piercing sharp bark as she slunk past him and surrendered it.