The first time I saw him in the back of an old El Camino truck, I thought to myself, "I am completely out of my mind." The dog filled the cargo area. When he scrabbled past me to crash heedlessly through my garden, dragging his owners with him, ignoring their shouts and apologies, I knew that crazy as it seemed, I had to give him a chance.
His owners were giving him away. He was 85 pounds of purebred German shepherd semi-pup, just over a year old. "Does he chew?" I asked the owner. "Does he dig? Bark a lot? Bite? Get into trash cans? Poop in the house?"
"Oh, no," the owner told me, edging towards the gate. "Max is a great dog, aren't you, Max?" The dog gave no indication that he was aware of her. "I just realized I don't have time to take care of a dog."
Yeah, right. Standing beside him as he put his front feet on the counter and looked out the kitchen window over the sink, I knew that there had been little or no time put into his training or socialization. Certainly not for manners. "Off, dog," I told him, and he never pulled that stunt again.
Bernie and I puzzled over his name for three days, because it was obvious his name wasn't "Max." He didn't look like a Max, he didn't respond to "Max," he didn't act like a Max. (Although I must admit I don't know what a dog who is really named Max would act like, as I have never met one.) The dog was optimistic and cheerful and very affectionate. "He needs a gentle name," Bernie said. "He needs a hero's name to live up to," I added. When the dog had stampeded through the roses and coral bells in the back garden, we observed that he wasn't a dog at all, he was an ox. He was Paul Bunyan's faithful buddy, Babe the Blue Ox.
His previous owner did not lie to me: he didn't bite, and he didn't poop in the house. After a while he was able to stay out of the trash, and since one of us was nearly always with him, he had no opportunities to dig destructively, and I must admit, after he mangled the back of an $800 Lane recliner, he didn't chew up anything else. And he only barked at the UPS truck, the FedEx truck, the mailman, the paper carrier, sparrows at the feeder, the sound of a doorbell on TV. Okay, she lied to me about not having time for a dog; she had a smaller dog, a labrador retriever mix within a couple months.
Our old border collie, Desi, thought that Babe was an idiot. In five minutes he taught him who the top dog was and gave him his first lessons in humility, which Babe, to his credit, accepted, even though he was twice the size. Poor old Desi was already failing rapidly, and after his death, Babe had to step up to the plate and fill a very large gap in our lives. Not long after that I saw the movie "Babe" for the first time, and had a sympathetic cry. Like the pig in the movie who was trying his best to be a sheepdog, Babe the Blue Ox was trying to take the place of a very sharp, precisely trained, focused, cosmopolitan border collie. Poor Babe.
But dogs are bred with certain purposes in mind, and a German shepherd should never be expected to behave like a border collie. Maybe at one time, German shepherds were bred to be herding animals, but that's not the case currently. The dogs are bred for protection and companionship. Babe has never walked at heel with his head at our knees; his biological imperative is to be in front, to guard. And he needs people. He loves people, as long as they are properly introduced. And oh, yeah, Babe was bred primarily for size and color. Big, dark shepherds. He's far larger than breed standards, and yes, he's a beauty, but the trade-off was an uncertainty about genetic spinal defects and aggression. Babe has a cocky demeanor with other animals that makes every dachshund and poodle in the world want a piece of him.
The mechanism that makes other dogs want to attack Babe is unknown to me. It's like he's wearing this dumb sailor suit that makes every kid in the neighborhood want to beat him up. One day, I was walking him around the block. We were politely on the sidewalk by a school when I suddenly heard a frantic scratching of toenails behind us. I turned, and seeing another German shepherd bearing down on us at full speed, did what any sensible dog owner would do: I dropped the leash and took a step backward.
Babe's expression turned to a gleeful, toothy grin, and he started toward the other big dog, who, having had a closer assessment of the victim, skidded to a stop, turned tail, and ran, Babe in full pursuit. They ran at full power across the street from the school, into a yard, and in the open front door of a house. "Oh, crap," I thought, and wondered about a trip out of the country.
Suddenly a woman's voice bellowed, "Get the hell outta here!" and both dogs came hurtling back across the street. Babe cheerfully came to me when I called him, but the other dog's owners had to chase their dog for a while to catch her. Her name was Cleo, and Babe still looks for her seven years after the fact when we walk past the school. I can only guess what Cleo's living room looked like after two German shepherds did a rodeo pass through it. Heh, heh, heh.
This is Babe's song:
Baby, Baby, you're so sweet
You're like the alligator with the yellow feet.
Baby, Baby, you're so cute
You're like the crocodile with the fur suit.
Over the years, Babe has become more Bernie's dog than mine, as he was at first. I attribute this to my insistence that dogs should not beg at the table (especially Babe, who cannot fit under the table and is inclined to lay his head on the table) and Bernie's soft heart, which cannot resist Babe poking his head under Bernie's arm to blindly mooch, in total trust.
His hindquarters are weakening, and it hurts me to see that. These days Babe more or less balances himself on his powerful front legs and chest. But he is no feeb, by any means. I still feel safer with him in the house than at any time before he came to us. The huge chisel-edged teeth and his buoyant, confident stance make Babe a heroic figure that any malefactor with half a brain would avoid.
Absolutely Babe is the thinly veiled dog-character "Gabe" in my serialized novel Dreamer. I trust this dog more than any other in my life.
Good dog, Babe.