Ol' Billy Jo

Billy Jo on top of her dog house in her pen alongside the garage.

Untitled photo

I grew up in a rather small house on the north side of Wausau, Wisconsin in the early 70’s that had one of the best yards any kid could ask for. When you walked out the back door of the breezeway that connected the house to the garage there was a large tree with big branches perfect for climbing. Then, past the tree, the yard dipped down a hill big enough to sled on in the winter and just small enough to roll all the way down in the summer without getting too dizzy. At the bottom of the hill we had a blue metal swing set, and hanging from another tree in the lower yard we had a red and black bird house with “See Rock City” in white painted letters on the roof.

I had no idea of what Rock City was nor why I’d want to see it but I did know my Grandfather had brought this bird house back from Tennessee in his VW Beetle with his plaid bottom-heavy bean bag ash tray balanced on the dash. It was one of those bird houses with multiple openings and levels and many summers, rather than birds, the flying squirrels would move in. My brother and I, when our parents weren’t watching, would shoot an arrow out of our underpowered bows just to watch it bounce off the bottom of the hanging apartment and frighten the squirrels into gliding across the yard so we could watch them “fly”. Then past the edge of the mowed grass down below there was a beautiful curve of a small stream rich with water striders and crayfish. It gurgled between its rocky banks, through the nettles and ferns, and made its way to the Wisconsin River a few miles away.

While my parents couldn’t afford to buy me the Schwinn I always wanted, I had a blue 3-speed bike with a banana seat and a sissy bar. In the front of the house was a dead-end road that I could ride my bike on for hours without my parents having much concern about traffic. Across the street there wasn’t a house, but instead a trail through the woods that had multiple intertwined paths to be biked, hiked, and explored. Down the street was a bridge over the very creek that would later downstream go through our back yard. Past the bridge the road turned to gravel and further down, off to the north, was a frog pond from which floated the sweetest summer music mingled with the evening winds. We had two channels on the black and white TV, no remote, no video games, no cell phones or internet, and almost no activities organized for us by adults. It was a pretty good place, and a pretty good time, to be a kid.

We spent almost all of our time outside. We mastered catching frogs by sneaking up slowly from the side and not making eye contact. We built stick forts in the woods in the summer and snow forts in the yard in the winter. We learned what nettle looked like the hard way in our summer shorts- though it seemed to take a couple mistakes each summer to remaster the lesson. We stealthily retrieved our Frisbees like Peter Rabbit from the chronically grumpy next-door neighbor’s garden who hated having kids anywhere near his prized plantings. I had an orange plastic Remco Billy Wizard crystal radio with the wire antenna running out my bedroom window to the tree across the yard. With no battery, and nothing to plug in, that wire brought me AM radio from the tiny one-ear headphone. At night, with the stars blazing the night sky and the frog music drifting in the open screen, I would tune into radio stations and listen to songs like Terry Jacks “Seasons in the Sun” carefully with the tiny fixed volume. For us, the TV was only for Saturday morning cartoons.

One summer when I was about 8 years old the neighbor’s dog down the street next to the bridge had puppies. Not just any puppies, but pure-bred Brittany Spaniel hunting dog puppies. The neighbors were kind enough, as the puppies grew older, to allow me to visit most every day. Of course, each day I played with the tiny puppies on the summer grass as they discovered the world my desire to have one of them grew. I would go home and tell my father of their antics and hint how great it would be to have a hunting dog and my father, each night, would explain to me how on a teacher’s salary we couldn’t afford a pure-bred Brittany Spaniel.

Eventually the day came that a couple of the puppies were missing- gone to their new homes. A few days later more were gone. Then the day came there were only a couple left; and finally, the day that I rode my bike down the street to have the neighbor lady- with melancholy in her voice that even a kid could decipher- inform me all the puppies had been collected by their new owners. I turned my 3-speed around, reached down to the car-like shifter topped with a white plastic knob to slip it into first, and peddled in slow zigzags home with the streamers on the handlebars barely waving in the wind.

Despite what I thought, life went on after that even without a puppy. But months later, over 6 months later, the phone rang at our house. In those days before cell phones that meant the one and only phone in the house, in the middle of the kitchen, began to ring. My father answered, “Hello”. Long pause. “I see”. And this conversation would have continued without getting my attention had not this sentence been a part of it, “How much for this puppy?”

Everything stopped for me. At that moment my entire world revolved around that phone attached to the wall in our kitchen. I listened intently to the rest of the conversation but it was only things like “That’s strange” and, “That’s hard to believe”. Finally, my father said to whomever was on the other end of the phone, “We’ll have to get back to you, thanks for the call”. And then he called a family meeting.

Now in our house a family meeting was a big deal. It was only called if there were big problems or big decisions. All four of us would have to gather around the circular kitchen table to deal with whatever the problem or situation was. And so that’s what we did on that early spring day, we gathered around the wooden table and waited to hear what my father had to say.

“That call was from the neighbors down the street,” he began. “Apparently one of their puppies from last summer was purchased by a couple that lives in a small apartment in Milwaukee and things haven’t been going well. They say the puppy won’t sit when they ask it to sit and it won’t stay when they ask it to stay. In fact, it has run away for hours at a time every time it has managed to get loose. They also say the puppy has chewed holes in their furniture and it has pulled up the carpeting off the floor and chewed it into pieces. They say the puppy is so terrible, so impossible to live with, that they are driving back up from Milwaukee next week and returning it to the neighbors. They don’t want it anymore.” He paused again.

“The neighbors will not give them their money back because they’ve had the puppy for over 6 months. But the people from Milwaukee don’t care, they just want to get rid of the puppy and get it out of their house. So the neighbors were wondering if, when these folks bring this puppy back from Milwaukee, we’d like to have the puppy- for free.” Then there was silence.

Then my father broke the quiet with, “The question is do we want this puppy?”

Of course, I wanted the puppy. Of course, my father did what any father should do at that point and started listing all the things that would need to be done and who was to do them. There was a lot of agreeing to take the dog for walks, to clean up after the dog, to feed and water the dog, and to spend time training. But in the end the decision was made at that circular table that day that this unwanted puppy would come and live with us.

In my imagination the neighbors would come walking down the street outlined by the setting sun with a barely panting beautiful brown and white puppy prancing alongside of them as they brought her to her new home. I imagined her sitting down with her tail wagging as I petted her head for the first time since I’d seen her as a young puppy. I was sure that everything the folks from Milwaukee had said about her couldn’t be true. I had spent hours and hours with the litter of puppies and not one of them acted anything at all like the description that had come over the phone line.

When the day finally came that the puppy was supposed to arrive a week later, I was surprised when the neighbors came walking down the street with this wild-eyed, choking from pulling so hard on the leash, puppy. They walked up to my father and handed him the leash. The puppy did not sit down but instead pulled frantically this way and that. As the puppy continued to make choking noises the neighbors said, “Listen, this puppy has had her name for some 7 months now and you really shouldn’t change it”. We quickly agreed as this sounded reasonable. Then they told us the puppy’s name was, “Billy Jo”. We thought it was an odd name for a puppy but they turned around and walked back down the street and Billy Jo, pulling and gasping for air, was officially a part of our family.

I’d like to tell you that all the things the folks from Milwaukee had said about Billy Jo were untrue. But we quickly discovered Billy Jo would not sit when you asked her to sit. She would always pull so hard on her leash when we tried to take her for walks that she would choke and gag. Perhaps if we could go back in time with the Dog Whisperer we could have deciphered what was going on in Billy Jo’s head, but we didn’t have a dog whisperer, and we didn’t have any idea of how to train a dog. Especially for training a hunting dog that had been trapped in a Milwaukee apartment for 6 months rather than being able to run and explore. And I’m not sure it would have mattered because, to tell you the truth, Billy Jo always had a wild look in her eye and something just wasn’t quite right with that dog.

But she was my dog. And you love your dog no matter what. That’s how it is when you’re 8 years old. It was quickly determined by my parents that Billy Jo would be a good “outside” dog and my Dad built her a pen alongside the garage. She had a nice insulated dog house filled with cedar wood chips. We took her for long walks with her dragging us around as she choked on her collar.

My Dad got a grouse wing and tied it onto a fishing pole and tried to use that to teach Billy Jo to point game. But her lessons didn’t really go well. Every time she got loose she ran away. And I don’t mean the cute “I’m on the other side of the yard and you can’t catch me” game that most dogs play when they get loose. I mean the she would pick any direction and just run directly away from you at a dead run and you wouldn’t see her again for several hours sort of run away.

When we took her for rides in my Dad’s 1965 International Scout, she would pace frantically across the grey vinyl seats until we’d crack a window enough for her to get her head through. There she’d ride with her ears flapping wildly in the wind just sniffing the air. When it was raining the best we could do was let her get near the vent in the front dash and she’d lock her nose on that and snorkel the air like it was her only source of oxygen. Unlike other dogs Billy Jo would never lie down and sleep during a car ride. Though nobody said it out loud I think we all began to realize that Billy Jo wasn’t like most dogs. Billy Jo wasn’t going to change. Billy Jo was one-of-a-kind.

Often, I would get her out of her pen carefully and bring her to our wonderful back yard and tie her up to the metal clothesline pole while I played. One summer afternoon when I was home alone a year after we got her I did just that. I tied Billy Jo up to the clothesline pole at the top of the hill and I wandered down the hill, under the “See Rock City” birdhouse, and into the woods to play along the creek. I was down there doing what I often did which was, and I’m not particularly proud of this, throwing rocks at chipmunks. There were uncounted rocks along the edge of the creek and almost as many chipmunks as rocks it seemed. I almost never hit a chipmunk with the rock (I say almost never but that’s another story for another day), but it was hours and hours of outside activity. There were many enjoyable summer afternoons spent down by the creek but this particular afternoon was different. It was different because when I looked up I saw something much larger than a chipmunk waddling my way through the ferns and nettles…

Even at nine years old I wasn’t afraid. I was an outside kid. I was used to animals and the woods. When I saw that skunk coming my way in the middle of the day I knew the only explanation was that it just hadn’t seen me. So I gave it a good, loud, “Hey!”

The skunk responded by speeding up. I was beginning to lose my cool. I yelled again, even louder this time and with a very serious nine-year-old inflection, “HEY!” But the skunk was undeterred. Though it’d be cooler to tell you I threw the rock, hit the skunk in the head and knocked it out the truth is I simply dropped the rock in my hand as I slowly backed up. The skunk continued my way, and I was pretty sure it had just kicked it up another gear as it was closing fast. I began to back up faster and walk toward the house.

By the time I reached the hill I looked back and the skunk was now running at me. I continued up the hill at a full run with all my outdoor cool gone (I was pretty much running for my life at this point), opened the screen door to the breezeway and slammed it shut just in time. As the skunk reached the door it got up on its hind legs and put its front paws on the screen. There it was, just inches from me with only the metal screening of the door between me and it. It was snarling and growling, “ARHGWDUAHRHESHDD”, and I’m going to tell you right now that I was scared…

But Billy Jo didn’t seem scared. Billy Jo was at the end of her rope stretching it with everything she had. She was sort of choking and barking at the same time. Looking back, I’d like to think that she was trying to protect me from this strange attack. The skunk continued to snarl at me for what seemed like few minutes to a nine-year-old but was likely only 20 seconds or so, then, once it realized it couldn’t reach me through the metal screening the skunk did something odder yet. It flopped back down on all fours, turned toward Billy Jo, and- still snarling- headed over to attack my dog!

I wanted to go help Billy Jo, but I was too frightened that the attack would turn back on me so I just watched with horror from the screen door as the skunk quickly closed the short distance to my dog. I wish we’d have had video cameras back then so you could see what Billy Jo did, but I guess I wouldn’t have had time to get it set up anyway. The skunk had no real plan other than “I’ll just go straight at that dog and kill it”. But Billy Jo had a plan. Though she was at the very end of her rope with it stretched tight, as the skunk made the last few steps in its attack Billy Jo stepped back just enough to create a little slack in the rope. As the skunk came directly at her she made a small side step and brought her jaws down on the back of the surprised skunk with ferocity I’d never seen in her before. And then, much to my- and I suspect the skunk’s- surprise Billy Jo lifted that skunk into the air by the scruff of its neck and began to shake her head like a great white shark making a kill. The skunk had no counter for this technique and just flailed in the air helplessly as Billy Jo shook and shook for what seemed to me at the time minutes. Likely it again really lasted about 20 seconds or so before it ended in an unexpected way.

The skunk went flying about 8 feet through the air, landed, and rolled to its feet. But Billy Jo was still shaking her head and when I looked there was still some black and white fur in her mouth! Glancing back at the skunk there was now a bright pink patch on its back where Billy Jo had removed part of its hide! The skunk realized that this battle was not going well and it turned back toward the woods and disappeared from my view because of the hill. But then it reappeared down below where my angle let me see the creek. The last I ever saw of that skunk was a little patch of bright pink slowly melting into the lush green…

When my Dad came home I shared the story of what had happened and he got very serious. “Did that skunk bite you at all?” he asked. Nope, not at all, I got through the screen door just in time. “Did it bite the dog?” was his next question. I replayed the events of the afternoon in my mind and told him that I didn’t think so but that things happened very fast. He got on the phone with the vet and then came back and told me the vet agreed with him that the only explanation for this attack was a rabid skunk. He explained that rabies could cause an animal to become aggressive, and that it could be transmitted with a bite. Further the vet had told him to go and try to shoot the skunk- but not in the head- so it could be examined. If he couldn’t find it then, to be safe, Billy Jo would have to go through a series of shots to protect her from rabies.

My Dad got his single shot bolt action .22 out of the closet and put on his boots. I can remember the sound as the breezeway screen door slammed and the bolt action of his rifle snickered shut. He came back from the hike with no sign of the skunk, though months later we’d hear that a neighbor a good way away through the woods saw an odd-looking pink-backed skunk wander under his woodshed never to be seen again.

I felt more than a little guilty about what had happened to Billy Jo because I’d tied her up to the clothesline pole in the backyard and stayed on the other side of the rusty screen door rather than come out to help her when the skunk turned her direction. Billy Jo seemed to forgive me though she never, in her whole life, was able to forgive the skunk. Most animals don’t hold grudges but Billy Jo did. From that day on, for as long as she lived, she hated skunks. As she got older we would take her bird hunting both for grouse and pheasants. Billy Jo had the best nose of any hunting dog I’ve ever worked with. She could pick out a scent and follow it like no other dog. The problem was that Billy Jo didn’t care if you were along for the hunt or not. I can remember pulling up to pheasant hunting grounds and while chatting and loading guns we’d all be surprised to see pheasants flying on the other side of a 40 and then we’d realize Billy Jo had gone ahead without us- again.

When you went hunting with Billy Jo you either kept up or you were left behind. My Dad would take her for long walks before we went hunting in an attempt to tire her out enough that we could keep up with her. We put one of those little bells on her that hunters use so they can tell where their dog is in the thick brush or grass. When it stops you know that your dog is on point and has a bird in front of it. I’ve had other hunting dogs since Billy Jo and their bells made this wonderful musical tinkling noise as they worked the land to and fro. But Billy Jo’s bell, the few times she was close enough for you to hear it, cracked more than jingled. It sort of smacked against her neck in a furious sort of “get me away from this dog” way. And while she loved to hunt birds of any kind, after the day in the back yard the one thing she loved to hunt more than birds was skunks. If you were hunting and Billy Jo and her bell noises just disappeared for a while you knew she was on the trail of skunk. She would appear afterward, sometimes hours and hours afterward, with her face yellow with skunk stink. I never got to see it but I always imagined it went something like this…

Billy Jo would trail the skunk until she finally caught up with it, no matter how long that took. Then the skunk would inevitably turn around and squirt Ol’ Billy Jo right in the face. At that point, with skunk stink dripping off her snout, Billy Jo would say something in animal language, much like Clint Eastwood in a western, “Is that all you got skunk? Is that all you got?” And then she’d kill it without any more thought. She killed so many skunks we eventually gave up trying to tomato juice the stink out of her. She lived her life in various stages of skunk smell: fresh skunk, wearing off skunk, just got wet in the rain and the skunk smell’s back skunk…

Now the one organized activity I was involved in was scouting. My Mom was our Den leader for the Cub Scout meetings in our basement. We made pinewood derby cars, made plaster animal track casts, and played basketball with the short hoop by father had nailed on the basement wall. But when I got older I joined a Boy Scout troop and wanted to earn some merit badges. I looked over the merit badge listings and read about all the requirements of each searching for ones that I thought would be a good fit for my interests and activities. Thus it was that I came to the Pets merit badge. Now this seemed like a great fit for me. I mentally checked off the requirements like feed your pet for six months, clean up after your pet: all stuff I was already doing anyway. But then, and I think there are now a couple of options that I didn’t have, it said “show your pet in a pet show”. I imagined Billy Jo at a dog show. I quickly crossed the Pets merit badge off my list.

One afternoon, however, I arrived home from school to find my parents had a surprise for me. They had signed Billy Jo and I up for the Paper City Kennel Club’s annual dog show. My parents were sure I’d be happy that I could earn the Pets merit badge but I was certain that this idea was one of the worst ideas I’d ever heard. I tried to get them to imagine what Billy Jo would do at a pet show full of pure-bred, well- trained show dogs but they just didn’t seem to get the same visions of bedlam that I did. They assured me that it would all be fine and Billy Jo would do great. I dreaded the idea but as it was thankfully a long ways off I assumed something would come along that would make them realize what a mistake this was, or maybe the folks from the Paper City Kennels would understand and Billy Jo would not be allowed in the show, or perhaps something else (anything else) would come up that was more important than going to a dog show to earn a merit badge.

But nothing did come up, and eventually the day of the show arrived. We gave Billy Jo a bath in the plastic pool in the yard with lemon-scented dish soap. She hated baths and rolled uncontrollably through the grass afterward to pay us back. We put a new collar on her and the best leash we had and off to the dog show we went. Billy Jo and I in the back seat of the Scout- me sitting nervously wondering just which of the many ways I could imagine this going terribly wrong would come to reality; and Billy Jo with her head out the window with not a care in the world, ears waving in the wind, her brown and white fur as shiny as I’d ever seen- with occasional blotches of grass green from sliding through the lawn- and smelling more than a little like a skunk in a lemon orchard.

The dog show was held at Marathon Park, the same place that later in the summer would host the County Fair. My Dad pulled the Scout into a shady parking spot under a large tree and we all stepped onto the pavement, warming from the morning sun even in the shade. There were signs directing us to enter the Youth building to register for the dog show. I clicked the leash to Billy Jo’s new leather collar and we all walked up the stone steps to the white front doors. My parents swung the double doors open and Billy Jo and I entered the dog show.

There were dogs of all kinds inside: dalmatians, poodles, greyhounds, speckled dogs, spotted dogs, huge dogs, and tiny little dogs that didn’t look like dogs at all to me. They all were respectfully heeling, or sitting down next to their owners as they waited in line to reach the tables where the registration folks were busy with pencils taking down information. Billy Jo walked in and within a few seconds had made some decisions. She’d decided she’d kill a couple of the nearest dogs first and then work her way toward the back. I used all of my 90 pounds to hold back her 35 pounds of out-of-control lemme-at-‘em. Her untrimmed nails made frantic sounding noises as she attempted to get purchase upon the glossy wooden floor. I turned to glance at my parents in hopes that they’d now come to their senses but they just issued assurances like, “She’ll settle down in a few minutes”, and “She’ll be fine”. The other folks all sort of turned, stared, then caught themselves staring and began to watch Billy Jo and I out of the corner of their eye; as if that was somehow better than just staring. I felt embarrassed but Billy Jo seemed too busy to notice.

We eventually made it up to the table and began to share the information that they required. They asked things like what kind of dog, name, and owner’s name- things like that. I was waiting for them to ask questions like “Why does she smell like a skunk?”, or “Do you think it’s really a good idea that you’ve brought this dog to our show?”, or even “Do you think your dog might kill another dog here today?” But they didn’t. Instead the pleasant grey-haired woman taking my information gave me this tag board arm band that fastened with a rubber band with the number 42 in bold black letters and the red, white and black Purina Dog Chow checkerboard logo above. She told me to get into line for the judging. The judging took place in the round building they use for cattle judging during the fair. My parents left Billy Jo and I and wandered off toward the round building to get some good seats to view the judging.

I soon noticed that the people in front of us in line tried to stay well in front. And the folks behind liked to leave a big gap between Billy Jo and I and themselves. I concluded this was likely due to the never-ending stream of low grunts and growls coming from Billy Jo. Or perhaps it was her occasional lunges toward the other animals that forced me to lean back and pull with all my might to stop her attack? In any case, my parents were mistaken when they said that Billy Jo would settle down, but we had plenty of room as we worked our way toward the judging area.

As we approached the judging building, we left the building we were in before entering the judging arena and there was a grassy outdoor area about 30 feet wide between the two buildings. As the other dog owners would reach this area, they would take the opportunity to walk their dog to give them a chance to do any business they needed to do before being called into the judging area by number over the loudspeakers. It was a great relief when Billy Jo and I reached this green area speckled with yellow summer dandelions as now I could get her well away from the other dogs for a few minutes. As Billy Jo dragged me along the sunny grassy area- causing her to make choking noises mixed in with the never-ending grunts- she sniffed every inch of the grass as I began to peer into the open door of the judging area. The windows from the open second story above let the sun stream in shafts upon the wood chip covered floor. I could see judges with wooden clipboards walking around perfectly sitting or standing dogs. Each pass by the door that Billy Jo and I made I would stare in. Not only had I never been in a dog show before, I’d never even attended one.

It was about the third pass by the door, just as we were getting a bit too far for me to see in the door anymore for this round, that it happened. The steady tugging of Billy Jo on the leash as she pulled me around while she sniffed changed. There was a noticeable difference in the pulling and it became more of an occasional, disturbingly firm yanking. I turned to see what Billy Jo was doing. I couldn’t quite see so I bent down beside her and looked down…

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw that day. For there, right in front of me was a scene that would have fit in with the worst horror movie of the day. Dogs had been walking through the grass all morning long. But somehow the dalmatians had missed this. The greyhounds had missed it. All the huge dogs had missed it. The tiny little toy dogs that tottered through the grass more than walked had missed it too. Only Billy Jo had enough of a nose to pick up the scent of the carefully hidden nest of baby rabbits. And once she’d made the discovery, she had quickly made the decision this was the day that all of them, every last one, should die. And she was taking care of business in a horrible hurry.

I pulled with all my might to get Billy Jo away from the nest. “NO, NO, BILLY JO, BAD DOG!”, but Billy Jo answered with more deadly lunges and horrible crunching noises that was her way of saying “OH YES, OH YES!”. I couldn’t pull her away, I couldn’t get her to stop, and there was no saving the bunnies.

I began to become aware that other participants were staring at me again, and not out of the corner of their eye- just regular “we’re not even trying to hide it anymore” staring. Even the other dogs seemed to be staring with a disbelieving shock in their eyes. Further, just about the time Billy Jo was finishing the messy task that she considered her canine duty there was a sound coming from the loudspeakers inside the depths of the judging barn that slowly wormed its way into my consciousness. It slowly brought me back from the small and disturbing universe that had existed between Billy Jo, myself, and the bunnies for a few moments. With the curious hollow echo of a cheap loudspeaker system came, “Number 42, we are looking for number 42. Would number 42 please report to the judging arena?”.

“Oh, Billy Jo, that’s us. It’s time…”

I used all of my weight to pull. Having finished the terrible task Billy Jo finally relented to the pressure and slowly followed me into the judging barn whilst looking over her shoulder (presumably for any further signs of movement). I dragged Billy Jo to the center of the arena. I looked up to see my parents in the stands waving happily at us. They were completely unaware of what had just happened outside the doorway. I was again brought back from my thoughts by the sound of the judge saying, “Can you get your dog to sit for me son?”

“Uh, no,” I answered, “She doesn’t sit when you want her to sit.” “I see,” the judge looked over his reading glasses with a quizzical and disapproving frown. At the sound of him scratching at the paper on his clipboard with his yellow #2 pencil Billy Jo seemed to give him a disapproving glance of her own. He then began to check over Billy Jo’s back, flanks, and paws. He would occasionally stop to again write upon his clipboard. Then he looked her in the eye and looked inside her ears. We had never cleaned her ears, ever. Surprisingly Billy Jo didn’t complain or growl. At least this part was going better than I’d imagined. But then, and I had no idea they did this at dog shows- the man pulled back Billy Jo’s lips to look at her teeth…

I’ll never forget the look on the judge’s face as he bent closer in an attempt to figure out what he was looking at inside Billy Jo’s mouth. I thought about trying to explain about the nest of baby rabbits, how I’d tried and tried to pull Billy Jo away just moments ago, or about how Billy Jo was a one-of-a-kind sort of dog. But I just stood there in the wood chip filled center of the circular building surrounded by spectators and my parents in the stands, with other participants staring at me from the scene of the slaughter just outside the sunlit filled doorway, holding the leash of a dog that wouldn’t sit and noticeably- over the strong smell of sunshine and woodchips- still smelled faintly of lemons and skunk. Somehow this had turned out worse than I had ever imagined and now that it had all gone horribly wrong, I had no idea of what to do next. The only thing I could think of to do was look the judge in the eye, smile, tilt my head and shrug my shoulders in a “That’s Billy Jo for you” sort of way…

“That’ll be all son,” was all he had to say with a finality that told me there weren’t a whole lot of points being earned by my Brittany Spaniel that day. As Billy Jo and I aimed for the door opposite from the one we entered I could hear the judge’s pencil scratching at his clipboard creating a sound almost as frantic as the sound of Billy Jo’s bell on a hunting trip.

My parents were excited to stay for the awards ceremony. I tried to explain to them about the bunnies, about the scratching at the judge’s clipboard, about how there was no way Billy Jo was winning any awards at the dog show that day and that there was no need to stay but they insisted. “You never know”, they said as if sharing some worldly secret with me. I knew. But there was no convincing them so we stayed while the judges finished looking over the rest of the dogs in the line. Then, they gathered everyone around and gave away huge trophies to the top finishers.

Billy Jo was not called up to the front for “Best of Show” or any of the other shiny trophies. She wasn’t called up when they passed out colorful and velvety ribbons of various colors. In fact, it wasn’t until the very end when they passed out a few “Certificates of Participation” that Billy Jo’s name was called. We walked up to the front and received our 8”x10” paper with the glossy gold stamp. I remember looking down at Billy Jo as we walked up and thinking to myself it looked like she was strutting. As if she was proud of herself! I concluded she didn’t understand that the Certificate of Participation was not a glorious affirmation of her pure-bred Brittany Spaniel genetics, nor certainly any encouragement or reward for her behavior for the day. Still, we walked the long walk back from the front with me wishing to be anywhere else, with the rest of the competitors staring, and Billy Jo proudly swaggering her way down the aisle. There were many reasons this was a day I’ll never forget.

Though she would never again attend a dog show Billy Jo would go on to have many more misadventures. She escaped her pen one day to go play on the highway and get run over. But of all the folks to get run over by somehow Billy Jo had the luck to get hit by a veterinarian. He felt so bad when he pulled into our driveway and explained that he’d never run over a dog in his whole life that he asked us if he could take Billy Jo with him and try to save her. It didn’t look good as she lay in the back of his truck not moving. But after a week in the vet’s care she arrived home and made a full recovery. Despite the numerous surgeries and a week’s care he wouldn’t accept any payment.

There was another morning that a huge pine snake slithered into Billy Jo’s pen to sun itself on her pebbled floor. When I came to give Billy Jo her food and water it looked like she was making snake jerky as there were hunks of snake just hanging from the wire mesh of her pen, some of it several feet in the air and on multiple sides.

She came through the six-inch rolled down window of the Scout one day parked outside our Grandmother’s house in a desperate attempt to kill the neighbor’s cat that was strolling through the lawn. When the cat climbed a tree, Billy Jo made it about 6 feet up before gravity reminded her that she couldn’t climb, and thus saved the cat.

And of course, there were many, many frustrating hunting trips over the years and plenty more skunks that paid the price for the attack that sunny summer afternoon above the creek.

It was a long time before I realized the lessons Billy Jo taught me that day at the dog show. Billy Jo didn’t care about ribbons or trophies; she found the nest of baby rabbits that every other dog had missed and for Billy Jo that was winning the dog show. That was what any self-respecting dog should have done as far as she was concerned. Billy Jo taught me that even if you don’t get the trophy, sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a little swagger as you collect your certificate of participation. She taught me that, like the song that came through my little crystal radio that summer, you should make the most of your seasons in the sun. She also taught me that you can forgive and love your one-of-a-kind dog even if she doesn’t win a shiny trophy at the dog show, even if she doesn’t sit when you want her to sit, and even if she doesn’t stay when you want her to stay. You love your dog no matter what.

Because that’s not only how it is when you’re 8 years old. That’s just how it is.

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In