When I adopted a puppy five years ago, it was hard to believe what the ASPCA ladies told me: that she was purebred. It was not even entirely clear to me that Murphy was a dog. With her comically long ears and mottled, scrawny frame, she looked more like a rabbit — not the fancy kind exhibited at county fairs, but the ordinary kind exhibited as stew.
Though the ASPCA ladies assured me Murphy was a genuine Plott hound, I was suspicious. It didn’t sound like a real breed to me; it sounded like an ASPCA in-joke, an invention for gullible customers when you have to unload an especially homely mongrel. (In Baltimore, real estate agents call Pigtown “Washington Village.”) But I found a book that confirmed the breed and described its temperament thus: “Plotts are intelligent, affectionate, courageous, willful, loyal, alert. ... ”
You probably just read that line the way I did five years ago, before I got to know Murphy; so, like me, you probably skimmed right over “willful” without stopping to consider it, underline it three times, highlight it in yellow marker, draw little devil horns on it, etc.
Plotts were only recently fully recognized by the AKC, meaning there aren’t many Plott breeders yet, meaning the breed hasn’t yet been ruined. No one has yet done to Plotts, for example, what was once done to collies. When it became clear that Americans liked Lassies with exceptionally narrow noggins, breeders obliged, creating a dog with an aerodynamic head shaped like a doorstop wedge; the only downside was that there was room for only one brain cell. I once had a collie named Augie who never figured out that it is actually possible to watch a child on a swing without being repeatedly kicked in the face.
But the Plott remains largely unchanged since the breed debuted in the 1700s in rural North Carolina. Plotts still have a temperament suited for their original occupation, which was huntin’ b’ar, a job that apparently required an uncommonly high degree of pigheadedness. On her walks, Murphy is so obstinate that I think of her as Anus domesticus.
Murphy is a great dog, but she denies the supremacy of any one species over another. She believes that in any matter under contention, she and I have an equal vote. Frequently, the matter under contention is in which direction to walk. The debate plays out like this:
Me: We’re going this way, Murph.
Murphy: (No, we are going THIS way. The way I am currently pulling you, which, coincidentally, is vectored 180 degrees from your intended direction.)
Me: We. Are. Going. THIS. Way.
At this point, the leash is as taut as a tightrope; you might think this would give me an advantage, inasmuch as I outweigh Murphy by 100 pounds. But that is where you would be wrong, because, unlike Plott hounds, humans are unable to assign every molecule of their bodies to a single task. Some of me, for example, will be manufacturing insulin or advancing food along my alimentary canal. Murphy however, will have transformed herself into a Going That Way Machine, a tensely packed bundle of protoplasm dedicated to one mission only.
It is usually Murphy who ends the tug of war. She doesn’t do this, however, by giving in. She does it by sitting down, facing the direction in which she wants to go.
Murphy: (Very well, then. I am prepared to remain here until hell freezes over.)
As any dog owner can tell you, you cannot succumb to this, even once; dogs operate entirely on precedent. So I also refuse to budge. The conversation continues.
Me: Is this what you want, Murphy? Really? Is this the walk you envisioned when I got your leash and you seemed so happy?
Murphy: (Yes. Yes, it is exactly what I envisioned, thank you.)
Because I say my part out loud, and because Murphy’s body language is equally articulate, often a small crowd will gather and point and laugh. These standoffs have lasted as long as three or four minutes. Eventually, Murphy will get up and walk in the direction I wanted, but she does it with dignity.
Murphy: (I haven’t given in. I’ve merely changed my mind.)