The little man called Cowboy

  • Magazine: ModernDog
  • Issue: Summer 2006
The little man called cowboy

You know that feeling you get when you stumble upon what you are sure is the world’s most gorgeous dog? That feeling you can only describe as falling in the camp of wanting to gobble him up, like an all-you-can-eat Belgian chocolate buffet? Whatever it is that ignites the yearning in you for your next canine baby, I felt nothing of the sort the first time I saw mine.

Utterly and completely au contraire.

Ironically, as I write this, I get a lump in my throat and find myself apologizing profusely to the little man in question as he lies curled snail-like on my (read: his) bed. How could I not have seen then what I see now? The boy who struck me as nothing short of a bad-ass punk is today as much an appendage of my body as are my ears. Perhaps more so, because I like him significantly better. (He doesn’t make my head look like an old-school trophy.)

Sometimes when I look at him—all six pounds of machismo oozing from his ginger-fur-covered pores—I feel the physical sensation of a bursting heart. When I hear my thirty-something friends adjust their vernacular to accommodate roles in the play of new motherhood, cooing and gurgling like malfunctioning respirators over their runny-nosed newborns, I can’t help but ask myself (inside-voice only): “I wonder if they’re devastated their baby’s not as cute as mine?” Oh, human babies—those disappointingly cone-headed aliens.

Cowboy—a.k.a C’Bro, Cows, and BMOC (Big Man on Campus)—came to me in such a way that proves when the planets have a plan for you, you shouldn’t fight it. I had recently lost my smallest friend, Nan, a 3-pound teacup Poodle. Left anonymously at the SPCA, Nan was a shivering, rotten-toothed, crooked old-boned ball of dirty white cotton. My friend Dulcie, an ardent animal rescue activist, snatched the palm-sized Nan and decided that my flexible student-at-the-time schedule would be just the thing to provide this senior canine citizen with a well-cared-for last few months. Nan and I ended up spending a year and a half together before she moved on to that mystical locale best described as “a better place.”

She didn’t leave, however, until I was officially transformed.

I went from being a relatively normal person to one of those crazy people who gets friends to sign petitions and eat tofu. And whose purse is never without her lipstick, keys, and rat-sized rescued canine. It’s safe to say that when Nan died, my inner crusader was born.

And so when I went home for Christmas that year and heard the message Dulcie, my Fairy Dogmother, had left (“Mary-Jo, I have your dog. Get over here.”), I was ready to meet my new adoptee.

Oh, how devastating to be handed your baby and to feel—ugh—nothing. Props to the moms with the alien babies. Not only does their baby look like it’s another planet’s mascot, they must live knowing they spawned its being.

At six pounds, Cowboy was twice the size of Nan. (“Dulcie, I’m not sure I’m ready for a big dog.”) He had shaggy Rod Stewart hair and as he ran around Dulcie’s big house with her pack of well-groomed award-winners, I knew I was watching the dog equivalent to the scruffy kid on the school yard. The country cousin who gets the prep-school cousins in trouble. The kid whose hair begs you to do the mom-hand-lick and pat it down. The boy who always has pudding on his face. The only feeling Cowboy gave me was the certainty that he’d pick my pocket before I left. Dennis the Menace? Yes. Cute and heart-warming? Um, not really. My rather awkward blind date and I left Dulcie’s and embarked on a get-to-know-one-another mission. While his exact origins are obscure, Cowboy came with a full set of urban myths—or, in his case, rural ones—tied in the bandanna at the end of his hobo stick.

He was found roaming the winter streets of Riverview, New Brunswick—a tiny enclave just across a skinny bridge from the sweet little city of Moncton. After a lot of door knocking, Dulcie found his unfazed family and reluctantly returned him. Concerned they showed such little emotion about their disheveled dog’s return, Dulcie kept an activist’s eye out. When she later drove by to check on him, he was attached to a heavy leash in freezing temperatures, sans shelter. Obviously malnourished, Cowboy made even the most emaciated runway model look fat. Dulcie politely offered to take Cowboy off their hands and met no resistance. And that, as they say, was that.

While his lonely home set-up was deplorable, it’s his life prior that is most shocking. Cowboy is reported to have been seen on and off for a period of two years traveling homeless with a pack of large wild dogs. Huskies, the rumour has it, were said to carry little Cowboy around town by the scruff of his scrawny neck. And what do you call a country dog found roaming the rolling plains, fending for himself, sleeping in whatever barn he could check into, and eating what scraps he could dig up? You call him Cowboy. Because that’s what he is.

To imply that Cowboy adapted well to his new life in my downtown condo high above Vancouver overlooking mountains, ocean, coffee shops, and coffee shops, would be a lie. Sadly, the little man took his new job as overzealous protector seriously and fast became a ridiculously embarrassing guard dog, willing to die for each of my apartment’s 562 square feet. While the famous dog scenes in There’s Something About Mary are funny on the big screen, in real life, it’s less hilarious to unclamp your dog’s teeth from the pants on a stranger’s thigh. I have taken elevator rides that cost me the price of a new pair of chinos. And while every victim laughed, I found myself explaining, time and again: “Sorry, he’s heavily medicated; his girlfriend just broke up with him.”

The first summer Cowboy and I were friends, I was forced to wear winter clothes in the dead of July. My summer wardrobe budget went to Scott, the dog behavioural counselor who worked one-on-one with my son, and who told me Cowboy was the most manipulative, self-absorbed, single-focused-to-a-fault client he’d had.

It was in the moment of that diagnosis I knew I loved Cowboy. I was reminded of the poignant scene in the late-1980s cinematic classic Uncle Buck when John Candy sits across the desk from his niece’s crotchety principal, after being told she’s a “dreamer” and a “sillyheart.” Uncle Buck: “I don’t think I want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer, or a sillyheart. I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they’re all good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they’re no good.”

All of a sudden, I understood Cowboy. He’s a survivor. End of story. No BMW-driving bottled-water-drinking dog shrink was going to strip him of that. Ensuring survival was Cowboy’s shtick. And he wasn’t giving that up for anyone. (Aside: In fairness to dialogue authenticity, if that line had come from Cowboy, it would’ve been more like: “And I ain’t givin’ that up for nobody.” Then he’d push through the saloon doors, and scuff down the long dusty road.) I wanted to tell Scott: “I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even have a job. But I know a good dog when I see one.”

When I look at Cowboy, I think of the stories he must know and will never tell me. Yet, I think even if he could share them, he wouldn’t. A real Cowboy saves his stories for around the campfire, and even then, he leaves out half and makes up half. The mystery is part of their intrigue—the John Waynes, the Jack Palances, the Clint Eastwoods. The Cowboys.

While I didn’t think Cowboy was all that charming when I first met him, I’m willing to bet that even the enigma of baby Clint took Mrs. Eastwood some getting used to. “Well, sure, I guess that raspy ‘go ahead, make my bottle’ voice has a certain appeal. Kind of. Maybe.”

I am so sorry, Cowboy—my Big Man on Campus, my Dennis the Menace, my little survivor—I do want to gobble you up. And now it’s here in print.

If you’re looking to rescue a small – or any sized – dog, and you don’t have your own Fairy Dogmother, please visit Your Cowboy is waiting for you there.