Some years ago, my wife Ellen came home from her job at the Kansas City Art Institute with a wriggling bundle of joy.
It was a puppy given to her by one of the students (kids were always trying to balance their studies with pet ownership and failing), who said it was a black Lab.
Our daughter named him Josh.
Josh was loyal, loving, dumb and destructive in ways that only an energetic, tail-wagging Labrador retriever can be. Also, it turned out that while there might have been a black Lab in his family tree, there was a lot more Great Dane. This was one big dog.
One evening a few weeks after his arrival we were relaxing on our screened-in porch when Josh, consigned to the back yard, decided he wanted to join us. So he walked through the screen.
Not the door. The screen itself.
That was it for Ellen. We had a 3-year-old in the house, and Josh was way too much canine for comfort.
I reluctantly put up a notice on the bulletin board in the newsroom of The Kansas City Star, where I worked, and was almost immediately contacted by Chris C., a copy editor who considered himself a great dog man. Chris and his wife were enthusiastic about welcoming Josh to their family.
Except that for the next several years I kept getting stories from Chris about the big beast’s loopy behavior.
There was the time that Chris and the Missus invited our colleague Howard over for dinner.
Howard had been dating a woman for years. They considered themselves engaged but had been in no hurry to name a date. Finally they agreed to do the deed … except that on the eve of the wedding the girl called it quits.
Chris and his wife thought a home-cooked meal might help assuage Howard’s grief.
On the appointed night the bell buzzed and Chris opened the apartment door to find a miserable-looking Howard standing in the hall.
Josh immediately leaped out in greeting, did a tongue-lolling dance around the stationary Howard and then peed on his shoes.
The sad part, Chris told me later, was that Howard barely reacted. He just looked down and nodded.
Chris told me of another incident when he was walking Josh on the grounds of the Nelson Gallery.
“Did you used to wear high white socks?” Chris asked me.
Actually, I did when I went running with Josh. Big white tube socks that went almost up to my knees. (What can I tell you? Seventies fashion.)
Well, Chris reported, he and Josh were passed by a runner heading west toward the Plaza. (For non Kansas Citians, the Plaza is a very ritzy shopping district).
The runner was wearing long white tube socks and Josh immediately yanked the leash out of Chris‘ hand and took off in pursuit.
Chris followed, huffing and puffing, as Josh sped down the sidewalk on the north side of Brush Creek Boulevard, heading straight into the heart of the Plaza.
As Josh ran past the Tiffany’s store that used to be at 47th and Wornall, a customer left the building and Josh slipped through the door before it closed.
Chris said his mind was immediately filled with visions of Josh laying waste to hundreds of thousands of dollars of china. He flirted with the idea of going home and abandoning his dog retrieval effort, then realized that his name and address were on Josh’s tags.
So he approached Tiffany’s with dread in his heart, only to find his pet just inside the door, standing on his hind legs and licking the face of a befuddled security guard.
No harm done.
The best Josh story, though, involves a nightly ritual. Chris worked the 4-11 p.m. shift at the paper. After getting home he, the wife and Josh would settle into bed and watch a midnight rerun of “M*A*S*H.”
According to Chris, one Saturday afternoon he was home alone with Josh when another “M*A*S*H” rerun came on. As soon as the show’s theme song began playing, Josh keeled over onto his side and began snoring.
It was a real-world example of Pavlovian conditioning.
Thereafter whenever Josh got too bouncy and anxious for human comfort, Chris would hum “Suicide is Painless” and the big dog would collapse in a deep slumber.
Cheaper than drugs or animal psychologists.