My beautiful dog, Dorothy, looks gross. I know that. People know that. But Dorothy doesn’t know that. If she does, she doesn’t seem to care. No dog bounces around more, bites at her leash on the floor or makes coyote howls more than Dorothy when she thinks she’s in for a walk.
So I can’t help wishing people wouldn’t be so mesmerized by the huge lump that has been bulging from her chest, gradually growing larger over the last three years. I get that it’s human nature to be hypnotized by abnormality, riveted, unable to look away, eyes involuntarily drawn as if magnetized.
But it’s not hurting her. If dogs truly are God’s clowns, she’s a class act. Well, now she is. When we first got her, she was a little scary.
I have recited Dorothy’s colorful provenance here before, so I’ll do the thumbnail this time: wild dog trapped in city park, hunting and scrounging, special trapper had to get her because she was that trap-wise.
Wonderful rescuer took her over for a year, converted her from dingo to pet, mostly. At first in our house, she hid under furniture, growled. Eventually joined the family. Very loving, trusting, stays close but still really, really likes to get out and ramble.
I thought all dogs were stupid and tried to climb trees after squirrels because they didn’t know dogs can’t climb trees. Watching Dorothy hunt the few time she’s gotten away from me, I realized most city dogs just don’t know how to hunt.
She runs a squirrel hard like a cheetah, straight up a tree, then stops short at the tree trunk. If she’s lucky, the squirrel sets off a squirrel panic among all the other squirrel cousins in the tree, and they all start leaping branches. Dorothy flashes out to the periphery of the limbs and circles. Any squirrel that falls to the ground is instant toast.
When I first had her, she brought me squirrels and pigeons. They weren’t mangled, but they were sure dead in a hurry. She knew how to snap their necks with surgical precision.
She could nail a pigeon in mid-flight at five feet in the air. I always expressed to her my extreme gratitude and my respect for her hunting prowess, but I told her in sign language that I had to demur on her offering. She got it after a while.
She’s very smart. She’s a kind of Blue Heeler mix. Some people see Australian Shepherd. One guy thought he spotted some pit in her head-shape. I see and hear coyote, but I understand that that’s not a biological possibility. I think she thinks more like a coyote than a dog.
Dorothy has that herding-dog eye — unnervingly piercing and watchful. Most dogs turn their eyes away. She stares you right in the eye and reacts to the slightest change in your facial expression. Her ears have some kind of extra fold in them, like origami. I can make her ears fold and twist like little radar towers just by changing my smile to a frown, and the funny thing is, the two ears don’t work in unison. I can make one ear do this and the other one do that. My wife says I don’t have enough to do.
The big lump on her chest, now bigger than a softball, is a lipoma — a benign fatty tumor. It is perfectly covered with fur, so it sometimes takes a second to see. She moves or looks up, and suddenly her forward profile is wrong.
We have had different vets look at it and scan it. They all say the same thing. The lipoma is involved in major arteries and nerves in her neck. Cutting it out without killing or paralyzing her would be extremely difficult — a long, expensive operation with a low chance of success.
And, yes, there is the question of cost. It really isn’t a whole lot cheaper for veterinarians to assemble the equipment and talent for an operation like that than it would be for surgeons operating on a human being. I can’t afford it.
Let’s not talk numbers because, since I’ve already told you I can’t afford it, I think we’re getting close to the too-much-information zone. Bottom line, I’m not paying for it.
But while we’re on the topic of cost, I want to put in another two cents worth and stipulate that I am not resentful of the cost. The kind of education veterinarians have to complete these days to get licensed, the fixed costs of clinic and equipment, the access to technology: all of those things taken together have to cost somebody a lot of money.
There’s no way around it. It should cost a lot. What vets can do today compared to what they could do 20 years ago is a miracle, but it can’t be a free miracle. Life doesn’t work like that. Unless I can get Dorothy an appearance on televangelist Gloria Copeland’s show, I’m not in the market for a miracle. Anyway, I’ve watched Copeland on TV, and Dorothy would bite her.
Then there is this. Dorothy is a dog. She used to be a wild dog. She could nail pigeons in the air and shake squirrels out of a tree. She’s tough like a dog. If she lost an entire leg in a critter trap in the woods, she would still dance around later on three legs and play God’s clown for a chance to go on a walk.
My decision is to leave Dorothy alone. She is in no pain. I believe she’s happy. Every time I feed her, she gives me this look like, “Wow, what do I owe you?”
Other dogs don't seem to notice or care. But I have had long and sufficient opportunity to think about the lipoma and an operation. If I ever did it, I know by now why I would be doing it. For me. For human reasons. For embarrassment and vanity. I would risk her life and toss away money I don’t have because I lacked the courage and the backbone to stand up to people’s stares. And by the way, there are days when I think I might lack those qualities. She’s probably very lucky that I also lack the cash.
Look, it’s not easy. People don’t just stare. They say things. “Oh, my God, what is wrong with that dog?” Total strangers. “Are you going to do something about that thing on that dog?” I’m telling you, people stopped at a red light in rush-hour traffic roll down their car windows to inform me that there’s something wrong with my dog.
Man, do I ever have to bite my tongue. I now have about 30 great comebacks stored up, but I’m a little too good at comebacks. I am, after all, a professional. I have to worry about people carrying concealed weapons, especially for the one I really want to use about the guy’s mother. I am never doing that one — never! Please. Way too chicken.
The only one I have ever used is, “Holy moly! She didn’t have that when we started our walk! Do you think she’ll be OK?” I’m not sure how that one affects people because usually by then the light has turned green and they’re gone, sometimes in a hurry.
I hope you get the picture here. I love my dog. Her deformity is painful for me, not for her. I do not have any grand principles or maxims to share on the topic because, in fact, I struggle with it.
But here’s the question: What is this like for people — human beings — who have very noticeable abnormalities, maybe from birth, maybe as the result of war, car wrecks, disease. They’ve come through some set of physical challenges. Maybe now they’re motoring along through life happy as clams, except that people have to stare. Maybe not just “people.” Maybe me.
Yeah, I think I probably have the same reflex buried down deep somewhere in my psyche, however suppressed. I suspect we all do, and we just control it with varying degrees of success. I Googled, “Why do people stare at abnormalities?” The consensus seems to be that they just do. If you are the person with the visible abnormality, you have to resign yourself to that fact.
I own Dorothy. I have the ability and right to do with her as I choose. I love Dorothy. But some weak part of me would risk her life to alleviate my discomfort at having people stare at her. I haven’t done that. But I have thought about it.
People have a Platonic archetype in their heads of what a dog is supposed to look like. On the one hand, the archetype is incredibly malleable, from Chihuahua to great dane. On the other hand, there are rigid and inflexible parameters, and Dorothy does not fit properly within those limits.
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Therefore, she causes stunning alarm in people. They roll down their car windows. “Hey man, what is that on that dog?” I do not say what leaps to mind about lumps on their mothers because I fear the production of a firearm.
What is that sense of alarm all about? Why is it so powerful and unreasonable? How fiercely do archetypes of normality rule our brains? People from small-town Texas, after all, can get sweaty-palmed on their first trips to the city just from being around a lot of people who don’t all look like their cousins.
What happens if Dorothy’s lipoma gets too big? I try not to think about it. Like I said, I own her. She’s not a person. I’ve had dogs put down before, a number of times. I can do it again.
Dorothy and I will cross that bridge when we get to it. In the meantime, if you happen to drive by us, just give us a friendly honk of the horn, and I sincerely hope I will not give you the finger. I definitely won’t if you’re stopped.