The term Irish wolfhound may conjure up images of frothing fiends chasing down wolves on the moors - or in the absence of wolves, a hapless human or two. But when I was a kid, a certain neighbor never had fewer than three Irish wolfhounds at a time.
Despite their size (taller, on average, than Great Danes) and somewhat fearsome mien, several generations of these wolfhounds proved notably friendly and fun, especially for tots, who rode on their backs and generally treated them like ponies. One of the most lovable of them grew up to be truly huge. I once saw him enter a paddock to check out a new horse. At first the horse couldn't peg this strange creature. Was he a pony, the horse seemed to wonder. The two had to gingerly touch noses before they realized they came from different worlds.
One of the wolfhounds was an exception to the good-guy nature of his fellows. Periodically he would terrorize the area, raiding nearby homes and driving everyone - animals and people - indoors. Neighbors would alert one another by phone: "He's headed your way!"
Why didn't the family just get rid of him? It was a point of contention between the father of the family and his three daughters, the latter militant animal-lovers who instinctively gave dogs the benefit of the doubt. The daughters dubbed their errant pet Raiffy, as if he were maybe a toy poodle, and staunchly claimed he was the victim of bad press. If the silly neighbors would stop reacting so defensively, they said, everything would be fine. Just because a slathering giant gallops toward you apparently bent on mayhem - is that any reason to recoil (which only upsets him)?
Horace, the father, who was plenty headstrong himself, didn't buy any of this. But he deferred to his daughters' determined Raiffy-coddling and uncharacteristically held his peace.
It all came to a head one night when my father and Horace were playing chess. It was a game Horace loved, and he brooked no disturbances. The two sat silently and deliberatively before a fire, with Raiffy - temporarily quiescent - lying on the stone floor nearby. Just as Horace, after long deliberation, lifted his hand to execute a move he felt sure represented a winning strategy, Raiffy sprang into action for no obvious reason. Barking thunderously, he moved toward my father. It was as if a tiger had suddenly appeared in the room.
Horace had finally had enough. Grabbing his walking stick, he drove the growling menace from the study and into the garage. Then he walked to the foot of the front stairs and shouted to one of his daughters, more thunderously than Raiffy had ever barked: "Elsbeth, either that dog goes, or I go!"
The rumor briefly circulated that Horace had to pack his bags, but in fact it was the end of Raiffy's ill-spent career. Eventually they found something for Raiffy to do in northern Canada (chase wolves?). But ever after, the daughters stoutly maintained that Raiffy had been a scapegoat for reactionaries.
On the opposite end of the personality spectrum was our springer spaniel, Kincaid, whose faithfulness and dedication were memorable. He'd rather have been with you than eat or stay warm. Many times I'd seen him return - wet, cold, and very tired - after tagging along with someone on a horseback ride. The warm, dry house and a fire beckoned, but if I were just setting off on a ride, Kincaid would unhesitatingly turn and follow me.
His crowning demonstration of fidelity began one morning when I walked a mile or so to school. Kincaid missed my departure but followed my trail and lay down outside the back door, waiting. Not knowing he was there, I left that afternoon through the front door and went home without his seeing me leave. We noticed he was missing when he didn't show up at dinner time. We searched for him that night. By the next morning we were worried, and I set off to school hoping he'd return during the day.
As I got near the building, there was Kincaid - alone, hungry, and still at his post, waiting for me. He greeted me enthusiastically but with no special fanfare, as if to say, "What's the big deal?"
I turned around and brought him home, then walked back to school. The round trip gave me time to marvel at this lesson in trustworthiness.