"Poor Bess," the Wonder Dog
Bess died in my arms, Friday afternoon, July 24, 1981, following a lethal injection from the veterinarian and was buried at home. She would have been fourteen in November.
During her lifetime she had retrieved daily and Sunday papers over 5,000 times until a week before her death when her arthritis became increasingly severe and she could no longer climb even the shallow slopes between the street and the house without frequent falls and difficulty regaining her feet. Her last two months she limped and hobbled but her tail still wagged in joy as she triumphantly carried the paper to the door -- for her, at that moment, the most valuable possession in the world.
Retrieving did not come entirely naturally to Bess; for many months she seemed to be a "Labrador Chaser," dashing after sticks thrown but never bringing them back.
Her master didn't know that most Lab puppies twitch and convulse during sleep in their early months. He also didn't know how much house training can be an on and off again process, with cycles of successes followed by failures. To him, obviously there was a causal link between her "seizures" and her failures in becoming house trained.
He took her to a round of veterinarians for her "seizures"--all of whom found nothing wrong--before he finally found one who said her distemper shots had not taken and she needed another series. To her owner at that time, that finally explained the likely, reasonable cause for both behaviors.
To her master it seemed as if she was completely housebroken twice--and lost it completely twice due to the "distemper"--until it finally took on a third, mutually recriminating and frustrating time.
Many scholarly psychoanalytic papers have been written about the influence of toilet training on the formation of guilt in people. Perhaps as many have been written by philosophers and comparative psychologists on why it is impossible for animals to feel guilt. The analysts are probably more right than they realize; the philosophers never considered nor did the comparative psychologists ever examine an animal that had been housebroken three times.
Guilt was one of the hallmarks of Bess. A minor transgression, whether her master was present or not, could cause her to slink around for hours, her face and belly to the floor and tail between her legs, her face making a ludicrous, grotesquely smiling caricature of one of those flat-faced aquarium catfishes.
Her master then would find the evidence of her sin, often a foil meat tray on the floor. The kitchen wastebasket (or any food, anywhere) continually called to Bess the way the serpent and apple tree called to Eve.
It was difficult to lift her anguish and remorse until a child psychiatrist friend who saw Bess in one such mood on a camping trip suggested a cure that proved reliable and quick: a ritual scolding or pretend spanking immediately followed by acts of atonement--usually fetching something that was thrown for her several times. This instantly restored her spirits.
Bess's "distemper" set in motion something else--a worry in her owner that she was brain-damaged and a resolve to teach her as much and in as many way as possible. Some of her weaknesses aided her in developing strengths.
Bess had no sense of limits about anything she liked: she liked to eat and might have done so until her skin burst if the food was there. She liked being petted and--if there was a limit of satiation--it was far beyond the endurance of most people's arms. And when finally trained to fetch, she'd run near the point of exhaustion but still demand more. She was trained before each feeding so the food treats would have maximum meaning as a reward. She'd do anything for those food pellets
Her owner became like the Sorcerer's Apprentice who cast a spell he couldn't stop; once Bess found retrieving, she demanded her daily sessions. While he preferred relaxing with a glass of wine after a day's work at the state hospital, her needs dominated. As soon as he was home, before a second sip of wine, Bess was grabbing any and everything in the house, piling objects at his feet, offering mutliple choices on what to throw for her to retrieve. For many years, if there was to be any peace in the house, Bess had to run and retrieve for at least a half-hour a day--every day, fair weather or foul, below zero or above 100 degrees, and always at the same speed, flat out, thirty miles an hour.
Her owner, a clinical psychologist, was motivated for the task of training for a variety of reasons, not all of which he fully realized: As a doctoral student he'd been impressed by the experimental literature on brain damage and the effect that prompt, extensive retraining can have in minimizing some impairments. He'dalso developed an interest in comparative psychology (the study of behaviors of animal species) and in learning theory including Skinner's operant conditioning. As the graduate assistant and lab instructor for a comparative psychology professor, he'd often tutored fellow grad students learning to apply Skinnerian techniques (operant conditioning, behavior modification) with various species but he'd never done that himself; Bess and her condition gave him a chance to validate himself.
And finally, he was in psychoanalysis at the Menninger Foundation and, although he didn't realize it at the time, Bess was going to prove--or disprove--his talent for parenthood.
Her owner was a totally inexperienced trainer who believed (quite mistakenly) that Bess was not an easy dog to train. She was very impulsive, eager, and any delay in being sent to fetch resulted in her quivering on tip-toes, every muscle straining, almost dying in the wait to retrieve. She was so fast that within a few seconds she could outrun the range that her master could sling a training dummy; dog and master moved their daily exercises to a pond near their home and Menninger's children's (psychiatric) hospital where the water's resistance slowed her down.
Bess at times was also a very stubborn and know-it-all dog, he believed her "brain-damage" was the cause, and she could break away from the command to "Sit!" to search endlessly in an area for a dummy that had not yet been thrown.
Her master would become furious and more demanding and punitive until his analyst was able to help him realize his grandiosity in wishing for the greatest dog as well as the influence of many thorns in his relation with his own father.
About the same time, he asked an acquaintance with experience in training retrievers to observe Bess and owner in one of their sessions.
At the end, he gently observed, "I've seen a lot of very well-trained dogs who could do a lot of things but sometimes their spirit's been all beaten out of them. Your dog's got a lot of spirit and she loves working. I kind of hope you let her keep having fun retrieving and don't train that out of her."
Her master, from that time on, tried to use his sessions with his analyst for unraveling the relation with his father rather than his sessions with Bess.
At her peak, her years between three and ten, she followed both hand signals and whistle calls to make many right and left turns, go farther out or return, on land and water. She'd weave an intricate trail wherever she was directed before getting her retrieving dummy and returning it.
In early evenings, when Bess and he often went out for her exercise, small groups of children with their aides from Menninger's also walked along the path bordering the pond. They'd stop and watch. Bess waited for an arm to point and the command "Go!" and then dash as if shot from a cannon, soar out over the pond, and hit the water with a mighty splash. She'd follow commands making multiple turns before her dummy was thrown in to fetch. Often instead of asking her to swim back, she'd be told to go to the opposite shore and sit so she could put on a show for the kids: "Bess, look right" (She'd look to her right.) "You see that dam down there?" (She'd look again.) "Good! When I tell you, I want you to run all the way around it and bring the dummy back to me. You got that? Good. GO!!" A similar variation was to have her look to her left at a bush some distance away near the pond's bank, then jump in at that point and swim back from there.
Children watching Bess's show exclaimed, "Bess, the Wonder Dog!" and attributed magical powers of wisdom and understanding to her. Her neck was hugged and an ear was lifted many times as a child whispered a confidence to this hairy, black Sphinx. When Bess responded--as she usually did--with an affectionate lick of the child's face, that satisfied the child and was probably the wisest answer she could give.
While Bess had many qualities of a dog--including occasional bouts with fleas--loyalty, the hallmark of dogs, was never her strong suit. Perhaps it was because her master picked her up from the breeder when she was only five weeks old; he was later to discover from the literature on imprinting that dogs taken to live with people at such a tender age may consider themselves as people and not as dogs and often have personality quirks. Perhaps loyalty is for dogs that know they are dogs, not dogs that consider themselves as people.
At times Bess might even have seemed disloyal because her interest and charm always seemed directed to the newest person in the room rather than to the familiar ones; whether this was because they were more vulnerable to her pleadings (which they were) or because she was a canine version of a welcome wagon was never quite clear. When ordered out of the room to give "Bess's guests" some peace, she positioned herself to keep eye contact and sent continuous pleas to her recent benefactor of her need to be rescued.
While children called her the "Wonder Dog," adults petted her, often crooning, "Poor Bess," both guest and dog seeming to collude in an outrageous fantasy -- that she was really a princess transformed into a dog by an evil spell, imprisoned by a heartless master, and that she'd be restored to her rightful place only through a stranger's love.
Bess's loyalty went out instantly to whoever was the most likely person to have her fetch, or feed her, or pet her (in that order of importance to her, invariably)--a loyalty that lasted--until there was a better possibility from someone else.
Bess was a black, furry sponge for which too much fetching, feeding, or affection was never enough. Perhaps because of those three intense internal demons so preoccupying her every waking moment (or arousing her from sleep at the slightest hint that any of the three might be gratified), Bess was never a dog that sensed out a person's mood and reacted with empathy, as some dogs are said to do. Her own needs were too pressing.
And yet she had a special charm about her. If friends dropping by were distressed about something, they were often comforted and relieved to find that as bad as they felt, they still could give so much pleasure to something else that greatly appreciated it.
On occasions, when her master needed to meet with someone very upset for an extraordinary session at his office, Bess sometimes accompanied him; Bess always helped do some of the work. Few people could resist her soulful gaze, her obvious delight in loving and being loved; she drew that effortlessly out of people and she always gave full measure for what she got.
Bess's exuberance declined very gradually over her lifetime. Malignant tumors on her breasts appeared and were removed when she was seven; she recovered, slowing down just a bit, but remaining her inimitable self.
During her last year and a half, her eyesight grew clouded and her hearing declined.
In May of her last year, her breathing became more labored due to congestive heart failure. She had not long to live.
Digitalis, a variety of other medications, and a salt-free diet were used, hoping they'd give her more time--and more comfort through her remaining days. Her master recalled the experiences they had shared so much together: his analysis, friends, sailing, marriage and divorce, job changes and professional growth, and he mourned her decline and passing.
Her reaction to the digitalis was extreme; she became anorexic, refusing to eat, until finally a comfortable maintenance dose was found. Every bout of anorexia was accompanied by her total apathy of interests and taken as a sure sign of her imminent death, perhaps only hours away. Her disinterest in food seemed especially ominous since she had always been a persistent beggar of food, a garbage disposer, an omnivorous glutton; raw mushrooms was the only food she'd consistently declined.
Her array of medicines did buy some time. Her functions were rapidly declining but a bit unevenly; her very powerful forelegs supplemented her failing arthritic hind legs but suddenly, in her last week, they began giving way also. In that respect, Bess was like the buggy in the poem of the deacon's "Wonderful One Hoss Shay" since her medicines allowed most things to wear out at the same time.
At the last, she still showed an interest in food, pricking up her ears and putting into her eyes the most plaintive, pleading gaze when there was any possibility of a snack.
Her legs would not propel her steadily but still she'd race with eager interest and intense satisfaction, wobbly and with falls painful to watch but oblivious to her, for ten or fifteen feet to get her prized retrieving dummy--in ultra-slow motion.
I reflected on all she'd taught me and realized she was still doing it -- now teaching me to grieve and mourn for something so treasured, so valued but still lost. To wrestle with the inconsiderate physical reality of driving a spade into the cursed, hard, rocky ground and then, pausing to wipe tears, wrestle with the emotional reality of her loss. I realized then that, without my awareness, she'd long ago dissolved my wish for her to be a wonder dog and that for many years I'd known her as my far-from-perfect -- but far better than good-enough dog.
I suddenly saw clearly that, paradoxically, all along she had been my teacher and I had been her student. And stages of my life which Bess and I shared and that now seemed more really closed by her death -- had been closed all along, but new ones would open up, maybe at some time with some other dog, but never with another Bess. . . . She was the beginning and end of her own special era.
--Robert L. Procter
July 24, 1981
(c) 1981, 2001 All rights reserved
Prequel to: Poor Bess the Wonder Dog
Why Bess came in our lives --.
I came to get my first Lab this way:
My fiancée, Charlotte, and I both worked at Topeka State Hospital in the 1960s. One hot summer evening, we were just leaving the employees' dining room after eating supper. On our way to the car, a medium-large black dog -- collarless, somewhat dirty -- was sitting by the sidewalk, smiling and wagging his tail at anyone who passed by.
Char and I stopped and petted him and he responded. I remember saying to Char, "Don't get too friendly with him -- we sure don't need a dog complicating our lives." We had a lot of stuff going on -- my analysis and second job to help pay for it, sailboat racing and regattas, and lots of other stuff.
As we walked to the car the black dog followed. The parking lot was a huge widening of the road that ran behind the hospital ward buildings for about a half mile. At 6:30, it was almost deserted. I thought 'if I drive fast, he'll stop following us.' We didn't want to delay him from finding his way home. Char's window was down and the black dog was on her side.
"Where is he?" I asked.
"Right beside the car," Char said.
I sped up to about 30 mph and asked again; Char gave the same answer.
By that time, we'd run out of hospital grounds and had to slow down for several blocks of residential streets.
The black dog ran beside us all the way home, about five blocks west.
For a few minutes we were puzzled about what to do now with a lost dog. Before we could decide, a "Take Cover" siren sounded the warning of a potential tornado in our area. That trumped any decision and we took the black dog with us to the basement. He was the center of our attention -- and we of his -- and we three cuddled and schmoozed shamelessly. We decided to call him "Sam."
Sam was dirty, a bit stinky, and lean. We were in the cellar for about an hour or two and by the time we came up, we'd already started strongly bonding with Sam. He was a noble, affectionate, caring dog.
When the "All Clear" sounded, Char went to get some dog food while I gave Sam a bath in the tub. It obviously was not something he'd choose for himself but, since he saw it was important to me, he submitted to it with great regal dignity.
To both Char and me, it soon seemed that never had a dog and people so completely bonded, trusted, and understood each other. We put "found dog" ads in our Topeka paper, at first wanting to restore him to his owners but, in a bit, hoping nobody would call. But someone did after a couple weeks.
Sam came from a family only about 8 blocks south. He was a Lab-Pointer mix and had a large fenced backyard that he shared with a couple of other hunting dogs. Sam had dug his way out under the fence and had been lost maybe 5 days before we'd found each other.
Char and I missed Sam terribly. We called the owners after a week and asked to buy him. Money was really tight then -- but we offered $100. They didn't want to sell. $150? "No."
We waited another week and couldn't stand it any longer. We called and asked, could we come and visit Sam? They said yes, so we arranged an evening to come by.
Char and I perhaps expected Sam would fall on us with hugs and kisses, overjoyed to see us again. Certainly we wanted to act that way with Sam. When we came in the back yard, Sam briefly interrupted his play with his two dog friends, came over and nuzzled us a bit but it wasn't the emotional reunion we half wanted (but also half dreaded since we'd have to leave Sam there). We realized we were important to Sam -- but not any more than any of his other people or his dog friends were.
Charlotte and I were both let down -- and relieved. Sam was well cared for and happy and he wasn't pining away for us as we'd been for him.
We got books on dogs from the library and found that the core of our "once in a lifetime feeling" with Sam was probably something mostly due to Sam's Lab heritage. Maybe we'd gotten only a diluted dose of those feelings with Sam since he was a Lab-Pointer mix? So Char and I started looking for a Lab breeder with puppies. And reading up on training and puppy needs.
After several months, Sam's owners called us and asked if we wanted to buy him. We said "No" because by then we'd already decided to buy a pure Lab puppy.
We bought "Bess" from Barbara Beers-Hogan's "Could Be" kennel in Olathe, KS, in December, 1967. Little Bess slept the whole trip home, swaddled in a bath towel on Charlotte's lap.
So -- for bringing Labs into our lives -- thank you, Sam.