Happiness Is a Stick Dog

The ongoing post-publication additions to You’re My Dawg, Dog: A Lexicon of Dog Terms for People, illustrated by J.C. Suarès, whose drawings graced the pages of The New YorkerNew York TimesVariety and dozens of books.

Before it was a primitive drawing of a canine (also several book titles, manufactured treats, a website design company, and god knows what else), a stick dog meant a Lab or other retrieving dog whose joy in life revolves around chasing something you throw and bringing it back. And chasing something you throw and bringing it back, and chasing something you throw and bringing it back, and chasing and bringing, and so on, until your arm feels like you just pitched nine innings in the majors. Do not, however, let the constant running lead you to confuse the noble, self-motivated stick dog with the unprincipled cur the Chinese named a running dog, which is a lackey paid to do the bidding of his master. (Think congressmen.)

My favorite stick dog is Stella Pusateri, a dedicatee of You’re My Dawg, Dog, and among the most fetching (as in lovely and winsome) of that most fetching (as in go-get-it-and-bring-it-back) breed of Labrador Retriever. Accompanying me and my friend Adam, a professional trainer, rock climber, and mountaineer on hikes through Essex County’s South Mountain Reservation, Stella would find her own stick in the woods and bring it over to get us started. Sometimes her selection was a bit problematical. Employing crocodilian jaw strength, she would often present us with a fireplace-sized log that a Brobdingnagian couldn’t hurl five feet. Regularly she would run off and return dragging a fallen tree limb about 15 feet long, with branches and leaves still attached. Trotting up the trail from behind, she would subtly remind us we hadn’t been attending to our throwing duties by running between us, tripping and scratching us as she passed. Annoying as this was, it was preferable to her sidling up for a reassuring pet or a shake-off after she’d rolled in a mud puddle to the point she’d transformed herself from black Lab to chocolate brown. Stella could not pass a mud puddle without rolling in it, any more than a terrier can ignore a rat, a border collie a herd of sheep, or a politician a crowd. Her genes were programmed to send her into water, even when the water is barely a constituent element.

Stella is to stick dog what Lance Armstrong was to cycling, although the only forbidden thing Stella’s ingested is deer poop, which is not to my knowledge, a performance enhancer. Without an instant’s hesitation, Stella will plunge down vertiginous embankments, seize the tossed stick (or a different one if closer to hand), and then scramble up it like Adam’s late hero Dan Osman free-climbing 400-foot Lovers Leap* to drop it at our feet, with no more evidence of exertion than if she’d padded into the kitchen so see if anything interesting might fall her way.

As advertisers well know, where we all long for a stick dog is on a deserted beach, on a cold, sunny, fall day, you and your lover in heavy sweaters, strolling barefoot with rolled cuffs, bumping hips and laughing as the dog races in and out of the surf. We’d buy whatever product offers us that.

*Lover’s Leap video

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