This week, I'm taking a brief break from the NHL playoff race to say Happy Birthday to an old friend.
The greatest athlete I ever saw, pound for pound, slept beside my bed and drank out of my toilet.
I knew my dog was a little different the first time I took him to a park in Ottawa in the spring of 1997. His tale (tail) of the tape: ten weeks old, five inches tall, maybe three pounds, with an already impressive two-foot vertical. He figured that was more than enough to match the Rottweiler and German Shepherd he went after, grabbing onto some extra fur on the latter's neck with his teeth and not letting go. It resembled the young lion trying to take down the elephant on my Blue Planet DVD.
My dog defined runt. His size and spunk immediately reminding me of Tanner Boyle, the short-tempered shortstop from the original Bad News Bears movie. And so he would become Tanner, aka, "The Wonder Dog."
Tanner was a Jack Russell Terrier, the "Smartest Dog Alive," according to Gene Hackman's character in Crimson Tide. I believe that throwaway screenplay line was the reason I got a Jack, despite numerous canine publications that warned against it. "Extremely high-maintenance," "temperamental," "not an appropriate breed for most families," they wrote.
But also, "full of character." And that was the only quote I circled.
When Tanner was sixth months old, on a lark we took him to a Jack Russell "Trial" in a small country town near our cottage. Trials are basically track and field meets for Jacks. He was too young to compete with the Big Dawgs, so to speak (Jacks don't get very big), but this particular trial had a puppy division for dogs under a year old.
There were about 20 Jack pups there, most of them from serious breeders, looking for their next champion.
The trial consisted of four events: an obstacle course, a simulated underground maze (Jacks were bred to chase foxes out of holes), a hurdles race, and a straight sprint. The last two have the Jacks chasing a fake rabbit's tail on a rope to a grapefruit-sized hole in a stack of hay. First dog through the hole wins. (I believe if the Olympics adopted this idea, it would make track events much more compelling)
That day remains one of the most bizarre, head-scratching, wonderful afternoons of my life.
Tanner won them all. Four golds (sorry, blue ribbons), Usain Bolt with a tail.
Despite the urging of several breeders at the event, Tanner would not go into full-time training. We retired him on the spot. An undefeated champion. Rocky Marciano's canine kindred.
While his competitive track career was over, Tanner's sporting life was just beginning.
We moved to Vancouver in late 1997 and discovered our otherwise macho little alpha dog was afraid of water. I'd jog on the beach with him every morning, and he wouldn't go near the ocean. When my soon-to-be-wife ran a bath (for her, not him), he'd hide under the bed.
That all changed the day we went deep sea fishing off English Bay, and brought the dog along (before kids, you always bring the dog along). He mostly stayed inside the boat, cowering in fear, until we reeled in the first salmon. The moment that fish flew out of the water and flopped back and forth on the floor of the boat, a bell went off in Tanner's head: water equals fish. Fish equals...something I must have in my mouth right now!
He spent virtually every moment of the next decade trying to catch one. The size of the body of water was irrelevant: ocean, lake, river, puddle, bathtub, sink. In Tanner's mind, all water must contain fish. Fish flop. Fish = fun.
No dog obsesses quite like a Jack. Every time I bathed the kids, he would sit on the edge of the tub, waiting for that salmon to leap out of the water and into his jaws. It would eventually happen, he figured. He'd seen it. He had proof.
He would sprint along the shoreline of our cottage lake for 14 hours a day, chasing schools of minnows. In recent years, as my son grew old enough to cast off our dock, Tanner would leap off after every cast, trying to beat the worm to the sunfish.
He never did catch one. But he never stopped trying. Man could learn something about perseverance from a Jack.
Tanner had more success with rocks. Some dogs fetch balls, some fetch sticks. He fetched rocks. Not little rocks. Rocks half his size. Boulders.
One day at The Beaches in Toronto, after we'd moved back east, Tanner drew a crowd of 100, all stopping to watch him "rock-fetch." He'd swim out 20 feet, dive under the water, disappear for 30 seconds, and emerge with a rock twice the size of his jaw. The crowd went nuts. I should have put a hat down and collected tips.
Tanner was a born performer. And pure clutch. We lived near Withrow Park in Toronto, which used to hold a Pet Trick Contest once a year. One summer, I discovered that along with rocks and fish, Tanner loved golf clubs. I have no idea why. Perhaps the feel of the metal against his teeth. Whatever it was, it made him nuts. I could throw him a pitching wedge and he would carry it, toss it, twirl it, and generally be thrilled for hours at a time.
When I heard about the contest, I figured I'd try to teach him to hit a golf ball off a tee. We practiced for a few days in the park. I'd drop the club a few feet in front of the tee, let him grab it and swing, hoping he'd make fluke contact. He might have hit the ball once in 100 tries.
I had to work the day of the contest so I gave my wife a quick tutorial on my plan and let her take over. She called me that afternoon, crying in laughter. Tanner, in front of a crowd of 500, had picked up the club, shaken it ferociously in his jaw, and knocked the ball six feet forward off the tee. Again, the crowd went ballistic. The contest was won. Tanner made page two of The Toronto Star, complete with a large photo of him with his pitching wedge.
Like he did with track and field, Tanner retired from golf that very day. The vet kept lecturing me that the steel was damaging his teeth (the rocks weren't helping either, but he refused to give them up).
He went out like a jock, too.
Last fall, a perfect late October Sunday, we went for a walk on a friend's farm. Tanner was in the zone, running through fields and woods, chasing squirrels, and desperately hoping there might be some of that fish-infested-stuff called water around the next corner. Eleven and a half years old, and still the energy of a pup.
And then he was gone.
Out of nowhere, he suffered some sort of seizure....stroke...heart attack...who knows. We never will. We raced him to the vet, holding him tight and bawling the whole way. But he was gone before we got there.
My two little girls were too young to understand. They immediately saw an opening for a hamster. My nine-year-old boy was crushed, but recovered quickly as nine year-old boys do. My wife took it harder than expected, considering Tanner shed all over her couches and clothes, leapt on counters to steal the meals she'd cooked, and generally wreaked havoc on her house for a decade.
Me, I still miss the runt every day. He would have turned 12 this week. My youngest daughter asked me recently what dog heaven was like. I didn't have a one of those eloquent answers the Dads in Disney movies have. So I just told her it has tons of rocks, and the fish there are very, very slow.