The Dog That Could Not Swim.

Revised December 2011.

To claim that a particular dog cannot swim is akin to saying that one knows of a certain duck that cannot float. But it was my singular fate to have bred and trained such an animal. I speak of the dog, of course, since the only ducks I have ever come close to claiming as pet, property, or tax dependent, have been only temporarily “owned,” on the table or on their way to the plate.

I had never before seen a dog that evidenced the inability to do the dog-paddle that a child imitates when teaching himself to swim. And to say that I had never before seen this phenomenon is much more astounding than it would seem at first reading. For I have lived a long and exceedingly observant life (only in those areas I have an interest, my wife interjects), and like the words in the song “I’ve been everywhere, man,” I have seen or heard of just about everything in the world of dogs.

Abbie came to me for training in the useful sport called “schutzhund,” translatable as “protection dog” but actually referring to a tripartite education in tracking, obedience routines, and a protection demonstration of a form that is very stylized but helpful in weeding out of the gene pool at least the worst cowards and dogs with weak nerves. Abbie’s mother (we dog people use the word “dam” but usually without exclamation marks) was co-owned by me and a Frenchman who had an Eastern-Germany address and an American beauty-queen wife.

She (Abbie, not the beauty queen) was the sole issue in her “litter,” which might tend to make child psychologists sit up and say “Aha!” Child psychologists and kindergarten teachers who have taken too many mickey-mouse courses in Early Childhood Development frequently say “Aha!” a great deal, regardless of whether they sit up to do so. Both use this ejaculation to give them just enough time to get their odd minds whirring and whirling in the quick formulation of a hypothesis. As hypo- means low or less, you can see that the word could mean “little thesis or theory.” Those who deal with little people sooner or later think of everything in terms of “little,” and everyone else as lower or underdeveloped. My four-foot-high former kindergarten-teacher sister-in-law is one. They also talk down to adults, and are even more bossy than nurses.

But I digress (it may not be the last time). I was saying that nothing should surprise me, especially in regard to dogs. My baby book confirms that I barked before I could talk. As a toddler, I was trussed in a harness and attached to a wire “clothesline” via a leash that allowed me to run the width of the back yard, to and fro. (I always liked that word “fro.”) I was wired so much of the time that my mother had to hang the laundry in the basement. Not because I was wired in the sense of being hyperactive, but in the sense of occupying the line. The other women in the neighborhood had terriers or cockers on their wires. Some of them (women, I meant, but perhaps the terriers, too) would have thought that I was a Shar-Pei because I was born with more wrinkles than a prune. Is say “would have” because I was born long before the invention of the Shar-Pei. In fact, I predate chocolate-chip cookies, television, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

I grew up more dog-like than Romulus and Remus, and you can’t blame it on my mother being frightened by a dog when she was pregnant with me. In those medieval days, it was a popularly believed old-wives’ tale with many variations, that frights to expectant women influenced the appearance of the subsequent babies. Mom, a jumpy-enough woman as it was, “broke her water” in a sudden fright when the plate covering the hole in the wall, where once had been an old flue, blew off with a terrible bang, covering her and the whole kitchen with black soot. My inventive father (whom I must have taken after, as you will see at the end of this tale) had been in the basement testing his theory that a good way to easily and quickly clean the creosote and soot out of the heating system’s chimney (which was enclosed in the wall between Mom and the parlor) was to get on the roof, trickle some gasoline down the chimney to soak the build-up a little, and then light it at the coal furnace’s cinder clean-out in the basement. To him, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and that was before that phrase became so tritely overused.

If the old fable had been credible, I should have looked like a Negro minstrel or like a chimney or stovepipe, or maybe a pie-plate. If you aren’t old enough to know about minstrels, read some history of the theatre or get some movies made about the time talkies came out, because I don’t have time or space to explain it to you. No, I looked like a prune. This incident happened about a month before I was born. I was due about the time of the explosion, but maybe the experience made my mother really pucker up, and like what happens to frightened animals but on a longer scale, delay birthing. They still don’t know if it was dehydration or being born after nearly 10 months gestation or what, but in the next year or two, when my mother took me for a stroll in the carriage, people would start talking before they looked in, so their remarks would be “Oh, Tess, you have a…” (then seeing me, instead of saying “boy” or “girl,” they would finish the sentence with a querulous “baby?” . Actually, I looked like a prune and acted like a dog, and my mother had never had anything to do with either before I came along. My father got a dog for me while I was still a quadruped; he explained it would help me learn to stand if I held onto it (another one of his crazy ideas) though I suspect it was to draw visitors’ attention to the pup and keep them from staring at me.

All of which introductory remarks merely serve to explain that I had the strongest of connections to dogs all my life. My innate curiosity and later education in science made me an ardent student of all things canine (hence that became the name for my dog consulting business) as well as all cause-and-effect relationships. I was never satisfied with just seeing and recording; I always wanted to know the Why. As a result, I became so well versed in dog matters that now I judge and lecture all over the world.

In the course of conditioning Abbie with roadwork in preparation for her performance tests and training for the show ring, we would often end a summer 3-mile run with a stop at the spring near our Alabama forest home. This is a small swimming hole created by the rainwater that seeped from the hills surrounding our cove. By the time the combined flow reaches the nearby cave, it has become a sizable quantity of water, continuing even in the worst droughts. The bowl-shaped pool is at most between five and six feet deep, and the water is always cold — bracing on a hot day. All my dogs have always loved to plunge in, especially to retrieve sticks or plastic bottles. That is, after I’ve taught them it’s fun, by throwing them in a few times.

I had already experienced a vast world of dogs throughout most of the 20th Century, but it wasn’t until the third millennium anno domini that I met the dog that could not swim. Oh, she managed to keep her head above water, and did not drown, but she wasn’t really swimming. More like treading water. But not leisurely, as boys do while waiting for a girl to come within reach so they can dunk her. A bit more frantic is the picture Abbie gave at first; less worried later, but still not inspiring confidence. She paddled in a completely, perfectly upright position. Being vertical, of course she could make no forward progress to speak of. My old male could swim across and back a couple of times for sticks in the time Abbie advanced a few paws’ length.

I had been training her since late winter, when I wasn’t out of town judging. Toward the end of the summer, she was finally ready for the proofing I demand of my breeding stock. I entered her in a long, arduous weekend of events that are prerequisites for breeding and having her offspring SV-registered. They include tests for traffic sureness and sociability, a test for tracking and finding lost items in a field, and one for “bite-work” (a combination of more obedience and willingness to defend, called “the protection phase”). She earned her Schutzhund title on the first day, which allowed entry into the Ankörung (breed survey), wherein the German judge measures everything, checks everything, and records everything. Getting this breedability certification is important for respectability in the German Shepherd Dog breed. To get this certificate in the Körung, the dog must also be ranked in a conformation show. These “breed shows” are basically beauty pageants in which correct movement is a dominant factor, hearkening back to the early history of the race as a sheep-tending tireless, all-day-and-night worker that needed an efficient, ground-covering gait. Also required for the Körung are certified hip X-rays and an endurance test consisting of a 20-kilometer (12.5 mile) run, although thankfully the handler uses a bicycle! This latter is called the AD, for Ausdauer. (German is so impressive to the novices, you know)

After successfully clearing all these hurdles, we and a number of other dog-handler teams took advantage of the lake near the testing grounds to celebrate and cool off. I came prepared for the swim, but less so for the good-natured jocularity at our expense. But no matter — our mission accomplished, I was ready to take the joking from my friends. I had brought a bicycle tube and pump along, having discovered their usefulness back home. Abbie needed something like kids’ “water wings” to keep her from sinking or remaining vertical. Experimentation showed that I could double the tube in a figure-eight folded back on itself, and maneuver it past her legs so it would fit around her waist.
I had to remove the valve stem because even a little air in the tube made it too difficult to stretch into place. Then, I replaced the stem and pumped enough air to inflate the rubber girdle. I did this behind the car to avoid attracting a heckling crowd. With the butyl tutu in place, we headed for the lake. Small girls and frail women screamed about the dog being attacked by two small boa constrictors. “Snakes!” they yelled; “There are snakes on your dog!” Given that there are never more than two weak women at a schutzhund trial (the sport attracts the more dominant types in the gender), there was not that much of a commotion.

As pre-tested at home, the invention worked there, too. Abbie had enough buoyancy to remain at an angle of about 40 degrees from level, and the resultant inclination permitted her to swim in a forward direction, making almost as much horizontal progress and speed as the naked dogs did. Naturally, that success did not entirely forestall the jibes. I who used to be called “that crazy kid” in high school was now “that crazy geezer.”

I guess tactical success does not guarantee strategic satisfaction. The Edsel worked, but people laughed at, did not buy, it. If in the next 70 years I find another dog that cannot swim, I will recommend the owner keep it in the desert. The alternative might be embarrassing. Or a drowned dog.