Buddy in the Spotlight

A Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer unexpectedly shows up at the farm in the middle of a storm, and the family dog steals the show.

Jane Sanders Illustration

Thanks to last winter’s polar vortex, our dog is a minor celebrity.

It happened the afternoon of the first snow. I was working in my office while the boys and their friend from across the highway played in the yard. I could hear them chasing, shrieking and laughing as they fired frozen fastballs at one other. Our high-octane puppy, Buddy, was right up in the middle of the madness.

After a while, I realized it had suddenly grown too quiet, so I glanced out the window. Across the yard, I saw the kids talking to a strange man with an expensive-looking camera and a camera bag on his shoulder. The former newspaper reporter in me sensed he was a professional photographer of some kind, but I watched closely for fear a weirdo had pulled in off the highway.

He didn’t strike me as a local. We live on a farm 70 miles from anywhere that newspaper photographers walk around with thousands of dollars in fancy equipment.
Photojournalists with foot-long telephoto lenses don’t appear in our backyard on a regular basis – or pretty much ever.    

Fortunately, my first hunch was correct. The stranger in the yard taking pictures of my children was not a creep but a real photographer – a nice one – and not just any old nice photographer. He was a Pulitzer Prize winner from the Times-Picayune who had roamed far into the countryside searching for his snow-related “Photo of the Day.”

For about an hour, Ted Jackson snapped pictures while the boys and Buddy gave an Oscar-worthy performance. They chased and tackled and went sprawling into the snow like actors on a movie set. But Buddy stole the show. A highly trained stunt dog could not have hammed it up for the camera any better. For the duration of the shoot, Buddy ran circles around the boys with a red Frisbee clamped between his teeth. He never once let go of that Frisbee. It was just like he knew that any photographer would be a sucker for a black Lab with a red Frisbee frolicking with kids in the snow.

Before Ted pulled out of our driveway, the photos were posted on Nola.com. My favorite showed Buddy speeding toward the camera with his Frisbee. Apparently, the Associated Press liked it, too, because it sent the photo out over its national newswire with the caption, “Watch Him Go.”

I could only laugh  – and not just because of the crazy improbability of an esteemed photographer unexpectedly showing up at our farm in the middle of a winter storm to take pictures of our children and dog that would be seen all over the country.

What really amused me was the stark contrast between Buddy’s new, glamorous image versus the real Buddy.

To the newspaper-reading public, I imagined that Buddy surely looked like one of those proper, well-trained city dogs who catch Frisbees and wear bandanas at the doggie park. People admiring that photo probably thought Buddy was the kind who visits a groomer and gets treats from the pet superstore and sleeps in a kennel. A picture-perfect specimen like the one in those photographs was probably hand-selected from a breeder’s litter of purebred puppies. Or perhaps he was a shelter dog who finally found his “forever home.” I just know they thought Buddy came across as one of those pampered city pups who go to the groomer or take nerve pills when it thunders or, God forbid, have things done to their anal glands. (Here in the country, most pet owners have no idea what canine anal glands are or what we are supposed to be doing to them – and we’d like to keep it that way, thanks.)

These thoughts are all highly entertaining, because the real Buddy is nothing like the dogs I’ve discussed. The real Buddy – how can I put this as sensitively as possible? – is a barbarian.

In the first place, Buddy did not come from a breeder, and I refuse to label him by the overly dramatic term, “rescue,” as if we liberated France from the Nazis as opposed to just doing the decent thing for a stray animal.

 Instead, Buddy came from the same boutique where we get most of our pets, a little place called A Moving Vehicle. An anonymous donor slowed down in front of our house one morning last fall and dumped him out. That’s a cruel way to get rid of a dog, but, frankly, Buddy didn’t seem all that torn up about it. I just opened the back door and there sat an older Lab puppy thumping his tail on the doormat with a friendly, but totally confident air that seemed to say, “It’s your lucky day – I’m here.”

As usual, it wasn’t long before the adorable new dog started revealing the not-so-cute habits that surely inspired his one-way ride. First, there was the manic energy. Buddy greeted all visitors by charging them with such joyous abandon that he nearly knocked grown men off their feet. Friends who are ordinarily too polite to point out our faults and failings started making comments such as, “That dog is insane.”

And, of course, there was the chewing for which Lab puppies are infamous. Soon after Buddy arrived, we began noticing spots on our doorframes, window frames and porch columns that were gnawed down to bare wood. I tried to distract him with a gigantic, $10 rawhide bone, but it vanished in less than 24 hours. Then Buddy started finding his own chew toys in the woods. The first one he brought home was a rotten deer leg. After that, he moved up to a fully intact ribcage with a spinal column. There is nothing like the decaying carcass of a 100-pound-animal in the yard to enhance your home’s curb appeal.

Chewing will probably be Buddy’s undoing. On the rare occasions when we let Buddy into the house, we have to watch him like a toddler. One night he got a Lego stuck in his throat that, for a few moments, I feared would be his last meal. We have saved him from more choking episodes than we ever did our own babies. Still, Buddy is proof that it is possible to eat an asbestos siding shingle, a rubber doormat and a large helping of charcoal briquettes and still lead a relatively normal life. He is a regular inspiration.

Every single night, Buddy inexplicably drags all the blankets out of the doghouse he shares with our other dog, Lulu, and leaves them in the grass to soak in the dew. Every day, we put them back. He digs hundreds of little holes all over the farm looking for moles. He obsessively chases the tractor, meanwhile inhaling noxious farm chemicals and zipping in and out in front of the tires. He turns over garbage cans. He tears up $60 bags of fertilizer and what else I can’t even remember.

That is why Buddy’s meteoric rise to fame as a Frisbee dog is so ironic. The truth is he wouldn’t last in a Frisbee dog’s world any longer than it would take his adoptive “parents” to unrescue him, get a refund for the pet treats and cancel their membership to the doggie park.

 Yes, every day is an adventure with Buddy – generally more to his liking than ours – but we put up with it because of his sweet, loving spirit. Despite all the aggravation, we knew and he knew that Buddy belonged to us from the moment he showed up.
Besides, we can’t get rid of Buddy now. It would be all over the papers.

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